March Madness: NCAA Tournament kicks off amid pandemic

Sports

INDIANAPOLIS (NewsNation Now) — After a chaotic season through a pandemic, March Madness is back.

The 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled due to coronavirus concerns and this year’s bracket will be like no other, played entirely in one place. The tournament kicks into high gear Friday with more than 15 games scheduled in the first round.

All 68 teams will gather in Indiana for all 67 games — no wondering who’s heading West to Boise or who’s going South to Memphis — ending April 3 and 5 with the Final Four. But all it takes is a single COVID-19 outbreak to upend the finely calibrated beauty of that plan. More than one and the entire endeavor could crater.

Kansas and Virginia, two programs hit with COVID-19 breakouts over the past week, made it into the bracket released Sunday by the NCAA selection committee, signaling both teams believe they’ll have enough healthy players to be ready for their tip-offs next weekend.

Welcome to Bubble Ball — no player can show up for the games in Indianapolis without seven negative COVID tests, and no team is really “in” the tournament until the ball is tipped off.

“Which potential season-ending test was more stressful than the other?” Drexel coach Zach Spiker said, meaning the challenges that still await. “Testing, practice, getting on the bus in Philadelphia, waiting for that reply, that response time to say, ‘We’re all negative here. OK, let’s get out of here. Let’s get to Indianapolis.’”

Because of COVID-19 issues, Drexel played a grand total of 19 games — about 11 fewer than usual — en route to the Colonial Athletic Conference title. That earned the Dragons an automatic bid into the tournament. The reward? In addition to a battery of nasal swabs, they get a No. 16 seed and an opening-round meeting with top-seeded Illinois.

The other top seeds were Michigan, Baylor and Gonzaga, which is the overall No. 1, and a 2-1 favorite to win it all and complete the first undefeated season since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers.

More about that bracket: A few bubble teams are coming from unexpected places, namely UCLA and Michigan State. Both were widely projected to make the field with ease, but they ended up as 11 seeds, paired in a First Four matchup on Thursday. The other 11-11 game pits Wichita State against Drake.

Returning to the big stage with a small first step Thursday night, the 710-day hiatus caused by the pandemic officially ended with the tournament’s ‘First Four’ games — contests that will launch UCLA, Drake, Texas Southern and Norfolk State into the 64-team main bracket that begins play Friday.

The NCAA is allowing a limited number of fans to attend all rounds of the tournament with around a 25% capacity at the venues to allow for social distancing. That figure will include all participants and essential staff along with the family members of team players and coaches.

Attendees must wear face coverings, and cleaning and disinfecting efforts will be emphasized at venues in keeping with COVID-19 safety protocols.

The Associated Press contributed to this report, all reporting by AP writers Eddie Pells and Jim Litke.

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