Each March prior to Selection Sunday, the NCAA conducts a midweek media call with the tournament selection committee chairman and Dan Gavitt, the association’s senior vice president for basketball. Indeed, the cancellation of last year’s session was an early sign of the brewing chaos.
Wednesday’s Q&A with Gavitt and chairman Mitch Barnhart left no doubt as to the 2021 tournament’s principal narrative, a lingering matter that has nothing to do with how many teams from your preferred conference will land in the bracket.
Gavitt and Barnhart, the athletic director at Kentucky, fielded 29 questions. All but seven were pandemic-related, and this was before recent national champions Virginia, Duke and Kansas had to exit their respective conference tournaments amid virus cases in their programs.
The requisite bubble intrigue remains — Syracuse, Louisville, Saint Louis, Drake, Memphis and Boise State are among this year’s anxious squads — mystery that is often solved by lurking bid thieves.
You know the types. It’s the teams, usually from major conferences, that have no at-large prospects but surprisingly win their league tournament and accompanying automatic bid, knocking their title-game victim into the at-large pool, in turn displacing a squad such as Drake or Boise State.
That’s precisely what transpired Saturday at Madison Square Garden, where Georgetown (13-12) routed Creighton in the Big East final. Late Saturday night, Oregon State attempted to pilfer a bid in the Pacific 12 championship game versus Colorado.
And then there’s Duke, which hasn’t missed the NCAA field since 1995. When the Blue Devils revealed their COVID issue Thursday, statements from coach Mike Krzyzewski and athletic director Kevin White made clear Duke’s season was over at 13-11.
But the Raleigh News & Observer’s Steve Wiseman reported Saturday morning that Duke officials now are silent on whether the Blue Devils would be available to compete if a surprising at-large bid was awarded.
Far less suspense figures to surround Sunday’s Atlantic 10 title contest. Regardless of the outcome, VCU and St. Bonaventure should be easy choices for the committee, giving the conference multiple bids in 15 consecutive tournaments.
Nothing is certain this COVID season, but Norfolk State’s MEAC championship Saturday should give Virginia five teams in the field, the Spartans joining UVA, Virginia Tech, VCU and Liberty. That would match the commonwealth’s high, established in 2011 and equaled in 2019.
Some projected regional seeds for the state contingent: the Cavaliers No. 5, Hokies No. 9, Rams No. 10, Flames No. 13, Spartans No. 16.
Panning the committee’s handiwork is an annual tradition, but I wonder if we might take a break in 2021. Given the pandemic’s impact on teams and schedules, identifying the best 37 at-large teams to accompany 31 conference champions into the bracket borders on impossible.
Was a team coming off pause? Did local protocols allow practice during the pause? What about a team that scheduled ambitious nonconference games but lost them to COVID issues?
Good luck processing all that data.
“We’ve got a really strong conference monitoring system,” Barnhart said. “Every committee member is assigned conferences to work with. Each conference has two people assigned to them, and they work with those liaisons with the conference offices to continue to take a look at player availability and who has played games, missed games, all of those things. We actually put another component on our monitoring sheets to sort of take into account this unique circumstance.
“Yes, I think we’re tracking it as well as we can, I think at a pretty high level. To say that you’re going to be able to factor in every one of those player availability issues is probably going to be difficult. But we will do the best we can.”
While one positive test within the Tier 1 traveling party of players, coaches and staff ushered Virginia and Duke out of the ACC tournament, NCAA officials have made clear that contact-tracing guidelines in Indianapolis, the national tournament’s central location, are not as harsh.
Teams will have dedicated floors at intensely safeguarded hotels and will move as a group. Tier 1 personnel will wear Kinexon tracking devices to assist with contact tracing but only during team activities.
“These ultimately are college students,” Gavitt said. “We need to do everything we can to keep them safe and healthy and be ready to compete. Yet the committee and staff didn’t think it was appropriate to be monitoring young men and women 24 hours a day. They’re responsible adults that can make decisions on their own. …
“The criticism that could come, the discomfort from student-athletes of being essentially monitored 24 hours a day when they’re in their hotel rooms by themselves studying or sleeping or resting, was not something the committee or staff were comfortable with.”
Regarding test results, Gavitt said anyone who twice tests negative following a positive result will be ruled a false positive and removed from isolation.
Epidemiology isn’t nearly as fun as bracketology, but here we are.
The 2020 NCAA tournament’s Thursday demise still fresh, last season’s Selection Sunday teemed with emptiness and confusion. This year, after a season we pray does not have a sequel, there’s relief and apprehension.
“We’ve come this far,” Barnhart said, “so now let’s hope we get to the finish line three weeks from Monday and we get to crown a national champion.”