COVID problems at conference tournaments should be warning sign for NCAA

As could happen maybe only in a pandemic, the happy release of the NCAA brackets will follow a week of tortured conference brackets.

While the NCAA Tournament brackets coming Sunday at 6 p.m. will start the country on that three-week annual diversion it missed last year, they also will come with a looming worry. For a view of that worry, look at the conference tournaments of the week gone by.

The ACC, MEAC and Big 12 tournaments also had brackets, brimming with teams and stories and possibility. Those brackets took dents when Duke, then North Carolina A&T, then Virginia, then Kansas had to withdraw midway before quarterfinals or semifinals because of positive coronavirus tests within their programs. Big games wound up as glum walkovers, leaving the question of whether the big bracket might suffer some similar fate, even as teams will inhabit a bubble in Indianapolis, the one-area site of this year’s event.

The global pandemic that scuttled the event last year hung around long enough to leave it with a raft of oddball protocols this year. There’s a system of alternates in case any of the 31 automatic-bid teams or 37 at-large teams can’t make it to Indianapolis. (The selection committee will choose alternates for the latter, the conferences for the former.) There’s a deadline of Tuesday at 6 p.m. for when a team can withdraw and an alternate can replace it.

All teams and their support staffs, 34 people in total, must produce seven consecutive days of negative tests before reaching Indianapolis. Any team can play if it can bring five players who are available after testing and tracing protocols.

In a potential quirk, any replacement team would go on the same seeding line as the team it replaced, a matter that might stoke talk of asterisks in future record books.

“It just shows that regardless of what you’re doing, you’ve got to be a little lucky,” Florida State Coach Leonard Hamilton said Friday night after his Seminoles advanced to play the ACC final against Georgia Tech in a case of two finalists who both had walkovers in their paths. “Regardless of how much you’re washing your hands, wearing masks, practicing all the safety measures and regulations that we’ve been practicing all year long, and then you come up here at the end and something unfortunately happens. You really don’t even know where it came from and how it happened. That’s just the nature of what we’re dealing with.”

Could some team or other end its long slog of a winter, with the isolation and hushed arenas, with a loss not at basketball but at biology? It already has happened for some. The four teams who had to leave conference tournaments already know various levels of that chagrin.

Surely none hurt more than North Carolina A&T, which won the Southern Division of the MEAC and prepped to serve as the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament in Norfolk, hunting the conference’s lone bid to March Madness. Instead, the Aggies had to withdraw Thursday before even playing, after which their athletic director, Earl Hilton, said in a statement: “To get to this point and have it taken away before we even get a chance to play is devastating,” and, “The global pandemic has proven to be unpredictable, and its outcomes are often cruel.”

Duke (13-11) exited before an ACC quarterfinal against Florida State just as it had won two tournament games and aspired to tear through the thing all the way to the only possible NCAA Tournament qualification it seemed to have. Athletic director Kevin White said in a statement, “As a result, this will end our 2020-21 season.”

Virginia (18-6) and Kansas (20-8) at least retained hope of reaching Indianapolis, even after “a gut punch” (the words of Virginia Coach Tony Bennett) and “a disappointment” (Kansas Coach Bill Self). They had finished first and second, respectively, in their conference regular seasons. Both withdrew before conference tournament semifinals, leaving Georgia Tech and Texas to advance without sweating. Both had a player test positive. Kansas already had two players who did not make the trip to the conference tournament because they isolated back at school under tracing protocols.

Both went into the once-unforeseeable process of updating NCAA officials about their statuses moment-to-moment.

“It is unfortunate the ACC tournament has concluded for us,” Virginia athletic director Carla Williams said in a statement, “but we have turned our attention to the NCAA Tournament. We are in communication with the appropriate officials regarding our participation.”

That protocol comes with more protocols. While most teams should reach Indianapolis by Sunday or Monday, others might be able to arrive later given circumstances and seven days of negative tests for any player wishing to participate. The “First Four” games that eliminate four teams and pare the field from 68 to 64, is set to begin on Thursday afternoon in Bloomington and West Lafayette, each about 75 minutes from downtown Indianapolis, where all teams will stay in four hotels and use the city’s skyways to reach practices.

Which teams? The brackets will state that Sunday evening, even if circumstances might alter that later on.

Chuck Culpepper covers sports for The Washington Post.

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