March Madness 2021, explained: Answering questions about NCAA Tournament’s ‘controlled environment’ plans

We know one thing for certain about the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

“It will be different,” NCAA vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said Monday.

Actually, given what occurred in 2020, with the cancellation of the event because of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can say we know two things.

The other? As Gavitt said: It will be.

The NCAA announced Monday it will not contest the tournament at 14 different sites across the nation, as it does in a typical year, but instead at one central location — most likely Indianapolis — where it will endeavor to create not a bubble but a “controlled environment” that will start by containing 68 teams before gradually being whittled down to the champion.

Here’s what we know now about plans for the 2021 NCAA Tournament:

Will March Madness be in a bubble?

Not in the same way as the NBA and NHL contested their 2020 postseasons. The NCAA expects to install a “controlled environment” for the participants, with those involved primarily traveling between their hotels, practice venues and the playing arenas. But access is not expected to be as tightly sealed as it was for those in Orlando for the NBA and in Toronto and Edmonton in the NHL.

“We know and we’re confident we can create a controlled environment in a single geographic area,” Gavitt said, “where we have very specific competition venues, very specific practice facilities, very specific hotels and transportation and medical resources, all of which will be scheduled very tightly to ensure the health and safety of everyone that’s participating.”

It is not yet certain the entire tournament will be staged in one city. Indianapolis quite likely will be the central site, but it is possible games could be played at venues in other Indiana cities.

Why is Indianapolis expected to be the host city?

First, it was the scheduled site of the 2021 Final Four. College basketball’s showpiece event had long ago been scheduled for April 3-5 at Lucas Oil Stadium, which was the site of the 2010 Final Four (won by Duke) and the 2015 Final Four (yep, won by Duke).

Second, and probably most germane to the situation, it is where the headquarters of the NCAA are located. Staging 67 basketball games in a single location over three weeks will be a logistical challenge, particularly when it is something that includes only 120 days of preparation time. Placing the event in Indiana means those in charge of arranging for hotels, venues, meals, access to medical care — there’s a lot to consider, and it’ll be more manageable if those involved don’t have to do it long-distance or jump on a plane every week.

What venues would be used?

It’s still early to say. The NCAA is in negotiations with the city and the state of Indiana. Because Lucas Oil already is booked for the event, it is expected the Final Four still will happen there. Although we can be pretty much assured there will not be 70,000 spectators, if there are fans allowed it will allow them to spread out more in such a large building.

There are three other major basketball venues in the city: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where the Pacers play; Hinkle Fieldhouse, where Butler plays its home games, and Indiana Farmers Coliseum, the homecourt for IUPUI.

Purdue’s Mackey Arena, Indiana’s Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, Ball State’s Worthen Arena and Indiana State’s Hulman Center all are a 75-minute drive or less from downtown Indy.

Will there still be 68 teams?

Yes. The committee’s plan is to put together a team using the same concept as has been in place since 2011: 68 teams, starting with the First Four and continuing on through the championship game.

It has not yet been established whether the committee would designate “replacement teams” that would be available should one of the automatic qualifiers or at-large selections develop a COVID issue that would prevent that group from participating.

Will the tournament begin in the same time frame as usual?

Most teams that have produced full schedules have done so according to a timeline pointing to March 14 as Selection Sunday.

Gavitt said it will not be possible to start the tournament two days after the selection date.

“We will provide more information about that when it’s appropriate, likely in a few weeks’ time,” Gavitt said. “It’s a certainty the tournament will not start within two days after the selection process.”

He also said the event will not follow the same daily schedule because of the need to create more distance between games. Typically, there were four games at each site on the tournament’s two opening days. During each of two daily doubleheaders — afternoon and evening — the buzzer would sound on one game and a little less than a half-hour would be put on the clock to allow teams from the ensuing game to warm up.

The need for distance and cleaning will mandate stretching out that time frame in some fashion.

Which cities are losing out on their tournament sites?

There had been plans to contest parts of the tournament in 14 different states. That now will be cut down to just one.

Dayton has been the site of the First Four — and its predecessor, the Opening Round — since it was introduced in 2001. As happened a year ago, when there was no tournament, Dayton will lose out on that event for this season.

The first-round sites had been planned for: Boise, Idaho; Dallas, Detroit, Providence, Rhode Island; Lexington, Kentucky; Raleigh; San Jose and Wichita, Kansas.

The regionals were to be in: Denver, Minneapolis, Brooklyn and Memphis.

“I know a lot of people who’ve put a lot of effort and sweat equity into those bids and to the preparations, and not just in Lexington, but 13 other cities,” Barnhart told reporters on a conference call Monday. “Clearly, I know there’s disappointment on each of those communities’ hearts, and there’s regret on our part that we don’t get to go. But I don’t think there’s any surprise that this has been a challenging pandemic.”

Will fans be allowed to attend March Madness?

That has not yet been determined, but the NCAA is “hopeful” that some attendance will be allowed, according to Gavitt. There had already been discussions with the state about attendance measures that would be in place for the Final Four. He said it would be a “local determination” and the NCAA expects to know more in the next several weeks.

To get an idea of what might be allowed, Butler just announced it will permit 25 percent capacity in 9,100-seat Hinkle Fieldhouse. The Indianapolis Colts have allowed 12,500 fans for its most recent games at Lucas Oil. That is slightly less than 18 percent of the building’s listed capacity of 70,000.

Who made the decision?

The NCAA men’s basketball committee is in charge of making decisions about the tournament. They choose the venue cities — years in advance — as well as, during Selection Week, the teams that will be involved and the seeding and bracketing for the tournament itself.

Gavitt told SN the committee had been meeting every week to discuss the staging of the 2021 tournament.

“We coalesced around a decision that we were not going to be able to host the tournament in 13 different sites,” committee chair Mitch Barnhart, the athletic director at Kentucky, told NCAA.com. “It was just, through the pandemic, it was unreasonable to expect that.

“We felt like getting to one geographic location gave us the best opportunity for the safety and health of the participants, the officials and all of the workers that are putting that thing on, just to have the opportunity to get a really, really special championship and crown a really, really special champion in 2021.”

Why make the decision now?

Staging the tournament isn’t like getting together a pickup basketball game — especially when one considers the NCAA has no template for an event in a single location.

If some odd circumstance forced the NCAA, four months removed from the tournament, to move from the 14 selected venues to 14 different ones but there were no considerations of a pandemic or other natural disruption — if it was just the same tournament as usual — the NCAA could manage that without much difficulty. But this is not that. They are trying to do something they’ve never done before without much lead time. They’ll take whatever lead time they can get.

“This is an incredibly complex championship,” Gavitt said. “I would argue that short of the World Cup or the Olympics, the complexity of a tournament of this scale and size, of 68 teams and 67 games over 14 sites in three weeks and generally as many as 680,000-plus fans needs time in order to be able to be planned accordingly.

“The other part the committee feels very strongly about: Out of fairness to the hosts, our host institutions and conferences that we rely on every year … have been working very hard for months now to get ready for hosting in March of 2021. And when the committee came to the very difficult realization just recently that it’s not going to be feasible to travel around like that and to have this event held in multiple states and multiple locations, out of fairness to the host institutions and conferences, it was important to let them know now.”

Why isn’t the NCAA just pushing back the tournament to May?

That was Iona coach Rick Pitino’s suggestion after his team had to shut down operations for an extended period because of a positive COVID test within the program: Delay the start from its scheduled Nov. 25 open and then contest the tournament as “May Madness.”

There is no guarantee the circumstances will be greatly improved relative to the virus if the season were to start at the end of January.

Moving the start actually could be problematic because it would coincide with the planned return of students to campus for those that are continuing to conduct classes in that manner.

The vast majority of schools that have on-campus classes will be sending their students home prior to the Thanksgiving Eve launch of Division I basketball. They will not be returning to campus until as late as February. Playing college basketball in December and January will mean there are far fewer opportunities for athletes to interact in social situations, meaning they will encounter less risk of contracting the virus.

There also is the issue of television. Turner and CBS pay the NCAA roughly $800 million annually to broadcast the tournament. Having seen television ratings for various displaced sporting properties decline, sometimes dramatically, it is unlikely either company would be eager to dislodge the tournament from its typical placement — especially when there is no assurance it will improve the circumstance relative to the pandemic.

“Until we have a vaccine,” Gavitt said, “the possibility of this kind of disruption is going to be there.”

How will the selection process change?

There customarily are 32 automatic qualifiers and 36 at-large teams. With the Ivy League having announced its intent not to compete, that figures to open up a spot for another team to be chosen.

Everything else seems uncertain.

Teams were encouraged to play at least four non-conference games and were permitted to play as many as 27. A minimum of 13 games completed is required for tournament inclusion. But shutdowns for positive COVID tests may make it difficult for some teams to reach that standard. Gavitt said there will be a waiver process available for teams that aren’t able to get in 13 games.

The selection of at-large teams will be complicated by the number of games teams are able to contest, as well as the reduced number of non-conference games that are played. The NCAA’s NET rating will be less reliable as an indicator of quality because the data pool will not be as deep.

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