We're getting a clearer picture on just how much detail, perseverance and discipline it's going to take to pull off the most difficult single-site championship event in American sports history. The 2021 NCAA Tournament will be a gargantuan undertaking. We're now 45 days out from Selection Sunday and learning a bit more with each passing week.
My sources have shared some significant approved protocols and schedule details that were disseminated to select high-ranking people across the NCAA's membership this week. It's unclear whether or not all of these decisions and details will be made public, but I can share them here:
• All teams that qualify for the NCAA Tournament within a 350-mile radius of Indianapolis will travel by charter bus. And in an effort to combat COVID-19 positives that could surface after arrival in Indianapolis, teams' traveling parties will split up into three buses to allow for at least six feet of space between each person.
• Teams that fly will use private airports (and fly on private planes, like always) unless no private airport is accessible, which isn't expected to be an issue for most schools. As I reported last week, eating and drinking while traveling by bus or plane is not prohibited. The NCAA of course will mandate mask-wearing, but it will also be supplying schools with goggles and face shields and encouraging teams to wear them when traveling to best protect against potential airborne transmission of the coronavirus while sharing an enclosed space for hours at a time.
• The NCAA will pay for all travel, lodging and food for every team in the tournament.
• Teams can travel with as many as 34 people, all of whom will be designated Tier 1 and be subjected to -- and must pass --seven straight COVID-19 tests in order to depart for Indianapolis. Pep bands and cheer squads will not be allowed up through at least the Elite Eight. As for the Final Four, decisions on those groups are undetermined as of now. Here are two NCAA diagrams that depict how travel seating must be done.
Automatic bids vs. at-large bids
• Every school that wins its automatic bid prior to Saturday, March 13, will depart for Indianapolis on March 13. The teams that earn their auto bid in the afternoon or early evening of March 13 will also arrive in Indy late on the night of the 13th. All remaining auto-bid winners, from late Saturday night and throughout Sunday, will leave for Indianapolis on Sunday.
• As for the at-large teams, even if a school is a lock it will be asked to not leave for Indianapolis until its inclusion in the field of 68 is confirmed on the Selection Show. There will be some teams that leave Sunday night, provided they can get to Indianapolis before the wee hours. All others will depart the Monday morning after.
• The NCAA is asking teams with "high probability" of being selected as at-larges to stay in their conference tournament location between the end of their league tourney and the bracket reveal. This ask could make things tricky for a team like Gonzaga, but there is some room for flexibility where practical.
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Hotels, refs, practices
• The NCAA has booked four hotels in downtown Indianapolis that will solely be dedicated to housing tourney teams. All those in traveling parties will only be allowed to eat in designated rooms at their hotels for the entirety of their stay. No guests will be allowed. In fact, no one who isn't Tier 1, NCAA staff included (with the exception of hotel employees) will be allowed into these hotels.
• From the NCAA's protocols document: "Each travel party will be assigned 34 rooms on an entire floor within the hotel. Individuals will be assigned their own room and will not be allowed to share rooms."
• Officials will also have a hotel to themselves. In a normal NCAA Tournament there are 100 officials assigned to 67 games. This year that number will dwindle to 60.
• All Tier 1 personnel connected to the NCAA Tournament will wear Kinexon tracking equipment to gather data that will inform contact-tracing protocols. This will be crucial when COVID-19 positives surface after Selection Sunday. More nuanced details about how this will work will be decided in the coming weeks.
• The Indiana Convention Center is going to have 12 practice courts set up. Teams will also have practice schedules to accommodate them at least once at the venues they'll be slotted to play at in the first round. Practices will be held on every off day of the NCAA Tournament calendar, beginning on March 15. Teams that arrive on March 13 can begin practicing that Monday.
• Coaches will not be allowed to scout upcoming opponents' games in person. The NCAA will instead supply teams with video as soon as games end. From a tactical standpoint, this is a long-enjoyed perk for assistants who will instead continue to scout the way they do during the season.
Fordham needs to find a new coach -- and a new league
Jeff Neubauer stepped down as the coach of Fordham on Tuesday. This sever was viewed inside the industry as an inevitable one come March, but instead it arrives at January's end with Neubauer shuffling off with a 61-104 record. His hire was a befuddling one at the time, in 2015, when he came via Eastern Kentucky. Now, yet again, Fordham attempts a reboot.
I won't bother with potential candidate names. It's unclear where the school and its athletic director will lean at this stage; a hiring decision won't be made for weeks. The bigger factor: No matter who takes the job, Fordham's problems transcend the person assigned with righting a ship that's been in the wrong body of water for decades.
This is one of the five toughest jobs among the 10 multi-bid conferences. That opinion is backed up by Fordham's inability, despite being located in talent-sufficient New York City, to almost never leave the basement of the Atlantic 10 since it arrived more than 25 years ago. The last coach to leave FU with an above-.500 record was Tom Penders in 1986. The only coach in the past 60 years to last at least three seasons and win at least 50% of his games happens to be the winningest coach in school history, John Bach. He left his post 53 years ago.
The challenges inherent to the job are complex but the biggest is simple to identify while at the same time hard to make amends with: Fordham is in the wrong conference. Yes, it's a quality athletic department in the A-10 in some of its other sports, but this is not working in men's basketball. Talk to proud alums who remain devoted to the program and no shortage of them will say the same. It's got one of the most historic home venues in the country, but the fact Lew Alcindor played his final high school game at Rose Hill Gym in 1965 isn't securing one recruit.
KenPom.com's rankings track back to the 1996-97 season. Fordham's highest end-of-season finish is 127th. Its average finish is 218th. The school has never made the NCAA Tournament since joining the A-10 in 1995. The program's last appearance was in 1992; it's danced just four times in its history. FU's win percentage in league play across nearly 26 seasons is a putrid .248 (100-304 record) while it's overall win percentage isn't that much better (.313), with a 239-502 mark since the Rams left the Patriot League for the A-10. The team has had two seasons above .500 since it joined and hasn't won more than 18 games in a season since 1990-91.
Fordham is the A-10's only team in the greater New York City area, so on some level the league clearly values the school. But it has to be exhausting to dwell in the basement almost every season without exception. We've seen enough at this point. Fordham brass should be looking for a way out in an effort to improve its standing in the sport; the program is a laughingstock. It will take a near-miracle hire to pull the Rams out of a decades-long dormancy.
Two leagues make sense: The Colonial Athletic Association or the MAAC. At that level Fordham would be more competitive and ultimately, in time, more likely to break through and finally get back to the NCAAs. Maybe it takes another six or seven seasons -- but that's likely to be faster than sticking it out in the A-10 with whatever coach is next to agree to take on a gig larded with challenges.
Teams keep testing positive; refs mostly have not
There have been 2,431 games played this season. Hundreds have been postponed or canceled. According to the diligent, daily-updated research done by St. Bonaventure fan site SBUnfurled, 178 out of the 346 programs playing (that's 51.4%) have paused at least once since Nov. 25.
But there's another group mandatory to these games that, astoundingly and fortunately, has almost entirely dodged positive-case rates that have hampered college basketball: the refs.
This came to light all the more because, on Wednesday, the sport had a rare case of game postponements that was solely due to a positive COVID-19 case with an official. UConn announced its next two games would be postponed after a referee who worked the Butler-UConn game Tuesday subsequently popped positive. (We don't know which official it is, but the box score lists the three candidates.) The only other instance so far this season where a power-conference game was pushed off because of a positive test from an official happened on Dec. 23 (UCLA-Oregon).
I spoke with NCAA coordinator of officiating J.D. Collins this week. Collins said aside from the three games above that were impacted, only two or three others in the entire sport this season, so far as he could remember or had been briefed on, even had officiating crews down from three people to two. There is yet to be a game this season officiated by just one person (a fact helped by all the power leagues paying money to have a standby/replacement ref ready and within driving distance for almost every conference game).
"What we are averaging, 75-80% of scheduled games are being played, and officials, it's probably sub-3%, sub-5% that have had an impact on that," Collins said. "I think we're doing terrific. I got to give kudos to the 15 coordinators of officials at the league level. They didn't sign up to be air-traffic controllers, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day figuring out what games are or are not getting played, what officials are getting moved. Praise should be given to the coordinators and the officials for what they've done and keeping those games played."
So, all told, fewer than 10 games have been either postponed or tangibly impacted by positive COVID-19 tests from a referee.
In the lead-up to the season this was not the expectation. In fact, the worry was that games could be affected weekly, in some capacity, on account of officials testing positive. Instead, pretty much the only thing that's been running smoothly in the sport has been the reliability of the zebras.
It must be asked: How could there be such a discrepancy between team-wide pauses and lack of positive tests for officials? Especially since a portion of officials are still needing to travel on commercial flights in order to get to some games? It also must be pointed out that most officials have been responsible for testing themselves, then overnight-shipping same-day samples, and awaiting clearance. This system has been working … albeit somewhat on the honor system. The oversight from league coordinators has been strict, and Collins was sure to note that every official has been sent the message that any kind of behavior that could jeopardize games or bring to question manipulation of testing protocols would lead to severe punishments that would jeopardize these officials' livelihoods.
"If you want to referee this year, this is what you have to do," Collins said. "The officials have done their job. We've asked them to travel separately, not eat meals together, be in different cars, do everything outside the ordinary on an individual basis. So far, it's been successful."
Officials are also wearing Kinexon contact-tracing devices while on the road, which is significant because the tracking data helps objectively tell the story. Collins said the inventory of working officials has also dropped from 850 to about 450, in terms of the numbers of referees across the country who are still able to work three or four games per week. (In a normal year, top-level officials will burn the candle at both ends and work six games in a week.)
The arrangement isn't flawless, but it has informed the NCAA and conference offices about the potential success to be had when individuals are taking every precaution -- and how the positivity rate is drastically lower than teams, which obviously are together a lot more often and using shared spaces much more frequently. On an individual basis, the officials appear to be officiating themselves nicely.
Each week I highlight reader questions, so find me on Twitter and @ me with whatever you'd like answered.
How much money will they spend on extra transportation? They will have to do continuous bus routes from hotels or have 2 extra buses per team— Dr. Wilham Bilworth III (@WeekendatYerkes) January 27, 2021
This is in regard to the NCAA footing the bill for teams to travel to and from the NCAA tourney. I don't have an exact number for you, but if you want some napkin math, consider that a private plane both ways on average (according to sources I checked in with about this, and this is just an estimate) could run around $45,000. Again: on average. Charter buses are obviously much cheaper and on average could be about $12,000 when accounting for teams needing three buses. A broad/optimistic starting point: If 40 teams travel by bus, that's $480,000 and if 28 teams travel by plane, that's $1,340,000. Baking in other costs, the NCAA is footing north of $2 million to provide travel.
Has there been any indication given as to what happens if a team has a positive test during the tournament? Forfeit?— GLM (@nuggetpalooza) January 27, 2021
There has not yet. I expect this to be made public by mid-February. The crucial context is that the NCAA desperately wants to not even be presented with the scenario. So that wearable Kinexon tracking equipment, which constantly records location data, will enable the NCAA to determine if a positive test triggers necessary Marion County health regulations to sit other people via contact tracing. As I understand it, these NCAA protocols are built to be so strict that the Kinexon data will give empirical evidence to not force a team to leave the tournament so long as other people in the traveling party are continually keeping their distance and wearing masks.
If the Big Ten Tournament is held in Indy will the Big Ten teams that make the tournament just stay in the Indy?— Zach Wright (@zwright3232) January 27, 2021
Absolutely that will be happening. The detail I'm curious about is if the Big Ten moves its tournament to Indy, will teams projected to make the NCAA Tournament just stay in the hotel they'd already be booked to stay in for the NCAA Tournament? If that is the case and Iowa made the Final Four, it would be living out of the same hotel for a month.
Could you see an instance where a small conference having a team like Gonzaga who is in regardless asks them to opt out of a conference tourney, using Covid as the excuse, so that they get a second team in?— Timmy Jones (@CubHawk1985) January 22, 2021
This exact scenario will not happen because it is transparent bid collusion and there would be an uproar. The more problematic and nuanced issue is if Gonzaga runs afoul of its league's wants and opts out on its own accord. If it did this, and the WCC still held a conference tournament, the selection committee would be forced to reckon with something it does not want to reckon with: being an arbiter of an automatic-bid situation when that power has already been bequeathed upon the leagues. I wrote about this last week. Stay tuned, and until then, read this from Zags beat writer Jim Meehan.
• Sources: All conferences have until Feb. 26 to submit to the selection committee their plans for awarding automatic qualifiers for the NCAA Tournament.
• Iona coach Rick Pitino revealed he's recovering from COVID-19. Pitino told me cleared quarantine a few days ago; he first showed symptoms on Jan. 13, which was frustrating and ironic because the 68-year-old received his first of two scheduled doses of the vaccine shortly before contracting the virus. (Unfortunately its efficacy didn't take, which is why it's important to get two shots.) Pitino has since received his second shot. Iona hasn't played since Dec. 23 and is scheduled to return in early February. Said Pitino: "We haven't practiced much because we've had three different pauses ... I don't have a lot of positive thoughts going forward on the situation, but we'll do the best we can."
• Sources: The Big East is committed to playing its league tournament at MSG over all other venues and is not expecting fans to be allowed. From what I gather, it's also trying to plan for the possibility that some teams will opt out of playing.
• Read our David Cobb on home court advantage -- or lack thereof -- this season in college hoops.
• Michigan is not the only school on an athletic department-wide pause: Boston University is as well. It's just two schools at the moment, but this is what has ADs and commissioners gripping the steering wheel as we turn to February with campuses welcoming back all students for the first time in two-plus months.
• Huge for Stanford, which could be a bubble team: It's back on campus after almost two months away thanks to California and Santa Clara County finally rolling back guidelines. The same is true for teams at Santa Clara and San Jose State. People don't realize how tough it's been for these teams, even more so than all others.
• How big was Oklahoma's win at Texas Tuesday night? Five of OU's next six games are against teams ranked in the top 11 of the AP Top 25.
• Life running a conference in a pandemic: MAAC commissioner Rich Ensor said this week the teams in his league have had nearly 100 schedule changes since the season began.
• The America East has been as flexible as any league when it comes to scheduling. It blew up the second half of its league slate and is now releasing its games in two-week intervals to work around COVID-19. Four teams in the conference recently went on pause. Speaking of the AE, it also announced a revamped conference tournament format that is unlike anything I've seen.
• Why will the NCAA Tournament be played no matter what this season? "The NCAA lost more than $800 million in revenue" by not having a Big Dance in 2020. Here are the losses in visual form, via Sportico.