The pandemic is threatening to derail March Madness again

The possibly of the 2021 NCAA tournament being affected by the coronavirus pandemic is becoming greater and greater by the day. Several marquee programs were ejected from men’s conference tournaments this week after positive tests for Covid-19 from within the teams.

On Thursday, Duke was forced to forfeit in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament because of a positive test from Tier 1 personnel, meaning either a player or a coach. On Friday, a positive test kicked defending national champion Virginia out of the ACC tournament, and the Kansas Jayhawks out of the Big 12 tournament.

North Carolina A&T, the No. 1 seed in the MEAC tournament, also had to take itself out of the postseason after a positive Covid test. Northern Iowa also took itself out of the Missouri Valley semifinals last week minutes before tip-off because of a positive test.

Selection Sunday for the men’s bracket is just days away on March 14 before teams head to Indianapolis for a ‘bubble’ format NCAA tournament. The women’s bracket will be announced a day later before teams depart to San Antonio. The First Four games on the men’s side will start on Thursday, March 18, with the opening round and round of 32 games happening from Friday-Monday at arenas around Indy.

Teams have to produce seven consecutive days of negative test results in order to play in Indianapolis and San Antonio. The NCAA has also built out a 48-hour window for replacement teams should a program get removed from the field for having a positive test in its traveling party. Deadlines for medical clearance are coming quickly. We could be headed for a chaotic few days before the tournament opens.

Deadline for schools to inform NCAA they can’t meet tournament medical protocol in time for first round is 11 p.m., tomorrow. #UVA

— David Teel (@ByDavidTeel) March 12, 2021

There’s are bigger questions clouding all of this: why didn’t the NCAA take better precautions? Why is this happening at all?

The idea of bringing 68 teams from around the country to Indianapolis on the men’s side, and 64 teams from around the country on the women’s side, in the middle of a deadly pandemic was always going to be a problem. The fact that teams had to travel to conference tournaments before the NCAA tournament started added even more peril.

In reality, playing conference tournaments this season was a major risk the NCAA didn’t need to take. The very least the NCAA could have done is put a cushion between conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament, but they didn’t even do that.

As we wrote earlier this season, the idea of playing college basketball at all was always a bad idea this year with unpaid student-athletes taking on the brunt of the risk. The NCAA canceled the tournament last year a day after Rudy Gobert’s positive test in the NBA. Clearly, the NCAA didn’t want to lose two years of tournament revenue in a row. That took on greater importance than keeping players and coaches safe and potentially infecting anyone they came into contact work as teams traveled from city to city.

Players and coaches have gotten sick all year because of this season. The schedule has been compromised on a daily basis because of positive tests. The fact that we got this far isn’t exactly a cause for celebration when you consider all the people who caught the virus because of college basketball either directly or indirectly.

The early days of the vaccine are here, but the pandemic is still very real. It isn’t over just because we’re all sick of a year of lockdowns. Everyone wants March Madness to happen. Players worked their whole lives to have a shot at playing in it, and fans look forward to it all year. It just seems foolish to expect the NCAA tournament to go off with a hitch as currently planned.

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