Why NCAA tournament COVID protocols could allow Kansas, Virginia to play despite positive tests

·4 min read

Two days before Selection Sunday, and exactly a week before the first round of the 2021 NCAA men's basketball tournament tips off, the defending national champion and a perennial Final Four contender are both in COVID-19 limbo.

Virginia, the ACC regular-season champ, and a potential top-four seed in the NCAA tournament, learned of a positive COVID test within its program on Friday. Its ACC semifinal against Georgia Tech was subsequently canceled.

Hours later, Kansas pulled out of the Big 12 tournament due to a positive test of its own. The Jayhawks are also expected to receive a high seed.

What the positive tests mean for the two teams' March Madness participation, however, remains very much up in the air.

"Virginia's status for the NCAA tournament is to be determined," the program said in a release early Friday afternoon.

Kansas sounded a bit more optimistic. "I look forward to preparing my team in probably a unique way for next week’s NCAA Tournament,” head coach Bill Self said in a statement.

Will Virginia, Kansas be able to play in NCAA tournament?

The short answer: As of Friday afternoon, nobody has ruled Virginia or Kansas out of the NCAA tournament, and nothing in the NCAA's rules precludes them from playing – yet.

The individuals who tested positive are reportedly rotation players for their respective teams. NCAA rules stipulate that those players will miss at least 10 days, meaning they'd miss at least the opening weekend of March Madness. They'd potentially be able to return if their teams reach the Sweet 16.

The trickier questions pertain to contact tracing, and to whether the rest of the Cavs and Jayhawks will be able to compete without their infected teammates.

Virginia guard Reece Beekman (2) is swarmed by teammates after sinking the winning shot during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Syracuse in the quarterfinal round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Thursday, March 11, 2021. Virginia Won the game 72-69. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Virginia beat Syracuse on a buzzer beater in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament, but it won't get to play in the semis due to a positive COVID-19 test. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

What are the NCAA tournament COVID quarantine protocols?

The NCAA's most basic rule is that any member of a team's travel party must test negative seven days in a row before participating in the tournament. As of now, the rest of Virginia's and Kansas' players and coaches are on track to meet that requirement.

But contact tracing can also lead to quarantines and ineligibility. That's why neither Virginia nor Kansas could play Friday night – "a positive test, subsequent quarantining, and contact tracing," per the ACC and Big 12.

The NCAA, though, has its own rules. One positive test does not necessarily lead to the extended quarantining of an entire program. The contact tracing process – which uses data from tracking devices, game film, interviews and more – will seek to determine which other members of the programs are considered "close contacts" of the COVID-positive players. Players and coaches who aren't deemed "close contacts" won't necessarily have to miss any practice or game time next week.

How will contact tracing affect March Madness participation?

It's unclear how widely the "close contact" designation will apply. The CDC defines a "close contact" as "someone who was within six feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period," beginning two days before the administration of the positive test. The NCAA has adopted that definition, while acknowledging it's an inexact science.

Any close contact of the infected players will be subject to NCAA quarantine rules. A document updated in December outlines that, "when diagnostic testing resources are sufficient and available" – which they are for all tourney-bound teams – "quarantine can end after [seven days] if a [player] tests negative, and if no symptoms were reported during daily monitoring."

So, in short: Any player not deemed a close contact will be available for practice and games throughout next week. Any close contact will quarantine, and miss most or all practices leading into the NCAA tournament. But if they continue to test negative, they'll be eligible to play next weekend.

Friday's positive tests, therefore, will at the very least be a significant disruption. And Virginia and Kansas will be without a rotation player for at least one March Madness game.

Their participation in the tournament will then depend on whether COVID-19 has already spread throughout the programs. The COVID-positive players could have infected teammates over the past 48 hours. Any new cases might not appear in testing until next week. If one or more do appear, the contact tracing-quarantine process begins anew.

How many players do Virginia, Kansas need to play?

As long as the Cavs and Jayhawks have at least five eligible players, they can compete if they want, per NCAA senior VP of basketball Dan Gavitt.

What happens if Virginia or Kansas withdraws?

If Virginia or Kansas does have to pull out of the tournament, the NCAA's contingency plans depend on when the team withdraws.

If they withdraw before Selection Sunday, they won't be selected.

If they withdraw between Selection Sunday and Tuesday at 6 p.m. ET, they'll be replaced by the first at-large team left out of the field.

If they withdraw anytime after Tuesday at 6 p.m., their next game will be declared a forfeit.

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