How this year's NCAA tournament could be impacted by COVID-19

It was out of COVID-19 necessity, not in an effort to be more collegiate in its approach to things, that caused the NCAA selection committee to do to four basketball teams what schools do to millions of high school seniors ... put them on the waitlist.

The 68-team field was unveiled Sunday night, only this time with a twist — four “alternate” teams that could still be added to the tournament if any of the schools that were originally selected can’t play next week due to virus protocols.

Welcome to basketball purgatory Louisville, Colorado State, Saint Louis and Mississippi (in that order).

You’re out. Unless you’re not.

We’ve had plenty of Cinderellas in March Madness, now we have four sitting at home hoping their wicked stepsisters get COVID and they can steal a last-second invite to the royal ball … or perhaps it’s a Cinderella who is counting on a dream school admissions director deciding, in the end, to let that 2.8 GPA slide. (Her essay emotively pointed out her many chores around the chateau after the death of her father impacted her study time.)

While hopes are high that the tournament will be played in full this year, we’ve entered the hold-your-breath stage of things for college hoops administrators. Losing the 2020 event was bad enough. This, well, who knows what this will be?

Just last weekend multiple conference tournaments saw games canceled due to positive tests in and around teams. Two of those clubs — Kansas and Virginia — are in the NCAA field. At least for now.

Bill Self gestures with his hand and says something with his face mask down.
Kansas head coach Bill Self and the Jayhawks hope to have their COVID-19 issues under control in time for the NCAA tournament. (David Purdy/Getty Images)

The Jayhawks and Cavaliers need to have seven consecutive days of negative tests to be able to play. Both schools are confident, but only so much. Virginia, for example, is scheduled to play Ohio on Saturday, but won’t even attempt to practice until Thursday in an effort to make it. And the player who tested positive last week during the ACC tournament can’t play until the Sweet 16.

“Not ideal,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said.

Meanwhile, any other school could get a positive test between now and the start of the “First Four” on Thursday.

If something pops by 6 p.m. ET Tuesday, then the COVID-positive team will be replaced. If it is a team that qualified via an automatic bid, then their conference can send a replacement if that team can meet the seven-day negative test criteria. If not, or if the team that is out is an at-large selection, then Louisville et al come off the waitlist and gets in.

But if a team gets a positive test once things settle after Tuesday night, including once this gets going, then they will simply have to withdraw from the tournament. Not only are we robbed of a game deep in the bracket, or even the Final Four, some team will advance without even playing.

Simply put, are we going to make it?

“The NCAA basketball staff stayed in touch with the administrations of those schools [Kansas and Virginia], making sure the protocols are being met that would allow them to come to Indianapolis to participate,” selection committee chair Mitch Barnhart, the athletic director at Kentucky, said on ESPN on Sunday.

“So with that confidence, we were able to work through the evaluation process and place them in the field,” Barnhart said.

Will they stay?

“We’re confident that we are moving forward to tip off Thursday with a full field of 68,” Barnhart said.

OK, then.

Not that there was much Barnhart could say. He and his committee set the field as best as they could. They had overcome fewer games, and thus data points, plus uneven schedules, variables such as how to weigh a result when a team was coming directly off a COVID pause and all sorts of things no one even considered prior to this.

The NCAA is trying its best. It has moved the entire event to the Indianapolis area and has teams in a semi-bubble all week at area hotels.

You can argue the protocols are too strict and stringent and set the entire event up for failure, but what has been decided has been decided.

This entire tournament is sitting on a teeter-totter.

College basketball is about as unwieldy of a sport as there is in America. Division I alone has 350 teams (plus seven “transitional” clubs) participating in 32 different conferences. Alaska is the only state without a D-I team. It consists of mammoth state schools and little private ones, religious institutions and military academies. It takes place from rural outposts to city centers, mountains to the beach.

Trying to have a single standard is the equivalent of herding kittens. That in the best of times it produces this raucous event that turns chaos into a champion is part of the appeal.

This was certainly worth trying, but until "One Shining Moment" gets played, it’s a March of going Mad waiting for test results while minding quarantine rules.

And, of course, of the dreaded waitlist, a place no would-be college student ever wants to be.

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