We now know the NCAA will hold the entirety of its 2021 men's tournament in the state of Indiana, with most of those games in Indianapolis. We also know Selection Sunday is on target for March 14 and that the NCAA's intention is to wrap its 68-team, 67-game event with the Final Four on April 3 and the national title game on April 5, the same dates that have been in place for years.
What hasn't been announced is a schedule for the games. But through some fun reverse engineering, I'm going to attempt to paint what I hope eventually proves to be a fairly accurate picture of what to expect by the time the Big Dance tips.
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I wouldn't expect many days without at least a couple of NCAA Tournament games once the event starts. There are still some things to figure out with venues (like the NBA and the NCAA working together to find a way to allow the Indiana Pacers to play a couple of home games after the tournament starts and before it ends), so keep in mind those details are currently in flux. We already know the health guidelines for the NCAA Tournament, as they were released last week. With this information in mind, I've been told by sources that some teams qualifying for the NCAA Tournament will arrive in Indianapolis 24-48 hours before Selection Sunday to cut down on having all 68 teams get there the day Monday after.
As a reminder, here are the venues for the 2021 NCAA tourney:
• Bankers Life Fieldhouse (home of the Pacers)
• Hinkle Fieldhouse (home of Butler)
• Indiana Farmers Coliseum (home of IUPUI)
• Lucas Oil Stadium (home of the Indianapolis Colts)
• Assembly Hall (home of Indiana)
• Mackey Arena (home of Purdue)
We know the tournament is not starting the Tuesday after Selection Sunday like normal. So how many days will the gap be between Selection Sunday and the first First Four game? Here's the tricky part: Many league tournaments are still on track, if they get played, to finish within 24-48 hours of the bracket reveal. That puts viral incubation periods for teams that might face infection at risk. In my opinion, the most prudent approach would be to wait a full 10 days post Selection Sunday to start playing, but I can't see that happening.
My suspicion is all First Four games will happen five days after Selection Sunday, on Friday, at one venue: Lucas Oil Stadium. I think it's a lock we have the NCAA Tournament in play on the Saturday and Sunday following Selection Sunday. All that in mind, here's my guess at the overall schedule template for the tournament.
Sunday, March 14: Selection Sunday
Monday, March 15: Remaining teams arrive in Indianapolis
March 16-18: Teams in quarantine and isolated practices
Friday, March 19: First Four at Lucas Oil Stadium (four games)
Saturday, March 20: First round (16 games)
Sunday, March 21: First round (16 games)
Monday, March 22: Second round (eight games)
Tuesday, March 23: Second round (eight games)
Wednesday, March 24: Off day (or makeup games if necessary)
Thursday, March 25: Off day (or makeup games if necessary)
Friday, March 26: Off day
Saturday, March 27: Sweet 16 (four games)
Sunday, March 28: Sweet 16 (four games)
Monday, March 29: Elite Eight (two games)
Tuesday, March 30: Elite Eight (two games)
Wednesday, March 31: Off day (or makeup games if necessary)
Thursday, April 1: Off day
Friday, April 2: Off day
Saturday, April 3: National semifinals at Bankers Life Fieldhouse
Sunday, April 4: Off day
Monday, April 5: National championship game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse
As for the game schedule on a day-to-day basis, that's going to be fascinating and I think it's going to make for the best viewing experience in tournament history. Typically there are four TV blocks on CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV with staggered tips to optimize the madness (noon ET/2:30/7/9:30), but because there are only six venues this year instead of eight, I think tip times and TV networks will go with a non-stop rolling schedule of games, with at least two and as many as four being played simultaneously from the early afternoon all the way past 11 p.m ET. This should be a sports fan's nirvana.
In an effort to bring fairness to the bracket, I would hope/expect the NCAA to do the logical thing and opt to have one side of the bracket play on one day and the other side play on the other, meaning that all of Friday's First Four winners will feed into Sunday's first round matchups.
How about a guess at a potential schedule? Let's really break out the water colors and have a little fun. For the purpose of this exercise I'm using Jerry Palm's most recent bracket projection. Also, to make it easier, I'm swapping his play-in winners to all be fed into Sunday matchups. And I'll stick with traditional region names for now (East, West, South, Midwest), because who knows what the NCAA is going to do with naming the quadrants, given that all the games are in one state this year. I'm anticipating Marion Health County's COVID-19 protocol recommendation will be for approximately 90 minutes worth of cleaning and changeover between games in basketball arenas, so that's taken into account with the staggered tip times. I'm adding in TV networks (again, this is just a guess; I have no information on this) to really bring this dream to life. All times are p.m. and ET.
I can picture it now ...
FIRST FOUR (Friday, March 19)
• 12:10, Lucas Oil: No. 16 Oral Roberts vs. No. 16 Grambling
• 2:30, Lucas Oil: No. 16 New Mexico State vs. No. 16 North Carolina A&T
• 5:00, Lucas Oil: No. 12 San Diego State vs. No. 12 Pitt
• 7:30, Lucas Oil: No. 11 Colorado State vs. No. 11 NC State
FIRST ROUND: MIDWEST/WEST (Saturday, March 20)
• 12:10, Mackey Arena: No. 4 West Virginia vs. No. 13 Navy (West Region, CBS)
• 12:30, Assembly Hall: No. 3 Illinois vs. No. 14 Belmont (West Region, TBS)
• 1:00, Lucas Oil Stadium: No. 8 UConn vs. No. 9 North Carolina (Midwest Region, truTV)
• 2:15, Hinkle Fieldhouse: No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 15 Little Rock (West Region, TNT)
• 2:30, Bankers Life Fieldhouse: No. 5 Louisville vs. No. 12 Furman (Midwest Region, CBS)
• 3:30, Mackey Arena: No. 5 Oregon vs. No. 12 Drake (West Region, TBS)
• 3:45, Lucas Oil Stadium: No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 16 Eastern Washington (Midwest Region, truTV)
• 4:00, Indiana Farmers Coliseum: No. 3 Missouri vs. No. 14 Cleveland State (Midwest Region, TNT)
• 4:40, Assembly Hall: No. 6 Florida State vs. No. 11 Boise State (West Region, CBS)
• 5:45, Hinkle Fieldhouse: No. 7 UCLA vs. No. 10 Indiana (West Region, TBS)
• 6:00, Bankers Life Fieldhouse: No. 4 Houston vs. No. 13 Toledo (Midwest Region, truTV)
• 7:15, Lucas Oil Stadium: No. 7 Stanford vs. No. 10 Oklahoma State (Midwest Region, TNT)
• 7:30, Indiana Farmers Coliseum: No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 11 BYU (Midwest Region, CBS)
• 8:15, Hinkle Fieldhouse: No. 1 8 Oklahoma vs. No. 9 Colorado (West Region, TBS)
• 9:30, Bankers Life Fieldhouse: No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 Northeastern (West Region, CBS)
• 9:40, Lucas Oil Stadium: No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 15 Stony Brook (Midwest Region, TNT)
FIRST ROUND: EAST/SOUTH (Sunday, March 21)
• 12:10, Mackey Arena: No. 2 Kansas vs. No. 15 Jacksonville (East Region, CBS)
• 12:30, Assembly Hall: No. 3 Creighton vs. No. 14 Abilene Christian (South Region, TBS)
• 1:00, Lucas Oil Stadium: No. 1 Texas vs. No. 16 Oral Roberts/Grambling (South Region, truTV)
• 2:15, Hinkle Fieldhouse: No. 5 Minnesota vs. No. 12 Winthrop (South Region, TNT)
• 2:30, Bankers Life Fieldhouse: No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 16 NMSU/NC A&T (East Region, CBS)
• 3:30, Mackey Arena: No. 7 Michigan State vs. No. 10 Arkansas (East Region, TBS)
• 3:45, Lucas Oil Stadium: No. 8 Xavier vs. No. 9 Northwestern (South Region, truTV)
• 4:00, Indiana Farmers Coliseum: No. 2 Iowa vs. No. 15 Rice (South Region, TNT)
• 4:40, Assembly Hall: No. 6 Virginia Tech vs. No. 11 Saint Mary's (South Region, CBS)
• 5:45, Hinkle Fieldhouse: No. 8 Texas Tech vs. No. 9 USC (East Region, TBS)
• 6:00, Bankers Life Fieldhouse: No. 4 Clemson vs. No. 13 UC Irvine (South Region, truTV)
• 7:15, Lucas Oil Stadium: No. 3 Rutgers vs. No. 14 Bryant (East Region, TNT)
• 7:30, Indiana Farmers Coliseum: No. 7 Florida vs. No. 10 VCU (South Region, CBS)
• 8:15, Hinkle Fieldhouse: No. 4 Wisconsin vs. No. 13 Siena (East Region, TBS)
• 9:30, Bankers Life Fieldhouse: No. 5 Saint Louis vs. No. 12 SDSU/Pitt (East Region, CBS)
• 9:40, Lucas Oil Stadium: No. 6 Alabama vs. No. 11 Colorado State/NC State (East Region, TNT)
You'll notice that the bracket won't perfectly align with venues like normal due to there being six sites instead of eight, but that's a minor workaround. Also, sources have indicated Assembly Hall and Mackey Arena are not expected to be used after the first round.
I'd expect the venues for the second round to be pared down to three, eliminating Indiana Farmers Coliseum as well and opting to go with four games per day in the second round at Lucas Oil Stadium. Why the football venue? It's not great on aesthetics but logistically it's going to make pulling this unprecedented tournament off. Something tells me the NCAA will prefer to use that venue for all first five days of the tournament. I won't bother with advancing teams for the second round, but here's my broad estimation on tip times and locations.
SECOND ROUND: (Monday and Tuesday, March 22-23)
• 12:10: Lucas Oil Stadium
• 2:40: Lucas Oil Stadium
• 4:40: Hinkle Fieldhouse
• 6:00: Bankers Life Fieldhouse
• 6:30: Lucas Oil Stadium
• 8:10: Hinkle Fieldhouse
• 8:30: Lucas Oil Stadium
• 9:30: Bankers Life Fieldhouse
So that's my best guess at what we'll see, and of course some of these dart throws won't hit the target. But I'd expect to hear official word on much of this in the coming weeks, ideally before the end of January. What I do know is, if the tournament can be played as scheduled, it's going to be irresistible in this new format.