Updated: Apr 23
On March 12, 2020, to the dismay of college basketball enthusiasts across the country, the NCAA officially cancelled March Madness. One of the first major COVID cancellations, it was met with disappointment across the basketball community. Duke’s Cassius Stanley, now a guard for the Indiana Pacers, spoke for players and fans alike when he called the decision “heartbreaking.”
The players hurt most by the decision were undoubtedly college seniors, who had waited four years for a chance to show off their maturity and leadership to NBA scouts. Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton said in a press conference that seniors “should have another year” of college eligibility, and he asked for “special permission on scholarship numbers for an unprecedented circumstance.” The NCAA granted most players an extra year of eligibility, but its refusal to raise scholarship allowances forced some seniors off their teams anyway.
Even after March Madness’ cancellation, hardly anybody expected the coming year of college basketball to be affected by COVID-19. When the cancellation was announced, San Diego State coach Brian Butcher said, “I think it should be postponed and see where we are at in a month.” But as one month followed another, it became clear that COVID-19 would be around for the 2021 season as well.
So began a period of uncertainty around college sports, with proposals ranging from business-as-usual to complete cancellations, even for big-name (and big-money) athletic conferences. Duke University’s beloved Coach K publicly criticized the way the season had gone in its early stages, and even suggested that a pause was necessary. But on Sunday, March 14th, the NCAA announced its full 68-team roster for 2021’s March Madness. Getting there took effort, teamwork, and not a few missteps.
The Ivy League cancelled all winter sports in early November, and others soon followed. Even after the season started on November 25, teams continued to drop out. Howard University, which made a splash in the offseason by acquiring five-star recruit Makur Maker, paused operations after a 1-4 start. Howard was joined by teams like Maine, Charleston Southern, and Jacksonville. From the beginning, the 2020-2021 season was a struggle.
COVID-19 outbreaks among teams further complicated things. Between November 25 and February 16, 191 games deemed “significant” (usually involving a team from a power conference or with postseason aspirations) were cancelled due to COVID-19. Scheduling issues have left some teams with far fewer games played than others, making tournament selection a tricky task. Southern Methodist University, for example, missed the tournament after only playing fifteen regular season games, despite its 11-4 record in them, while Wisconsin’s 16-11 record after 27 regular-season games earned it a #9 seed.
Through the highs and lows of the season, the NCAA has remained determined to hold March Madness, not wanting to miss a near-billion-dollar payday two years in a row. “We're not naive about how hard this is gonna be,” said NCAA president Mark Emmert. “The pandemic is still very much alive and it's going to be in March... But we owe this opportunity to provide a healthy, safe environment.”
In an effort to make virus control more manageable, the NCAA decided to restrict the entire tournament – typically held all across America – to six venues in Indiana. It also established strict contingency plans for the tournament. For one, if a team has a positive virus test after the tournament has begun, they will be forced to forfeit and their opponent will advance; however, a replacement team can be designated if the infection is identified before 6:00 PM on Tuesday. As always, each conference will be represented by at least one team, so if a small league’s one bid falls to COVID before Tuesday night, they will be replaced by the next eligible team in their league.
Fans and players have their fingers crossed as the start of the tournament, Thursday the 18th, draws near. The college basketball season has been laced with turmoil, uncertainty, and risk. While all necessary safety measures and protocols seem to be in place, we know that things can change in a heartbeat during a pandemic. Still, it’s hard not to be optimistic about the chance to watch 67 basketball games in just nineteen days.
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