The NCAA Tournament is, at its core, a collection of moments. For the American sports fan, they border on canon — think Lorenzo Charles’s dunk, Christian Laettner’s jumper, Kris Jenkins’s buzzer beater.
But for each jubilatory half-court pile, there’s a group of kids on the other bench, tears streaming down their faces as they walk back to the locker room. It’s the painful, brutal duality of March.
But at least 1983 Houston, 1992 Kentucky and 2016 North Carolina had a shot. In 2021, there’s a chance not all 67 runners up will be able to say the same.
Take, for example, Virginia and Kansas.
On Friday, the day of their respective conference tournament semifinals, both schools revealed that they had a positive COVID-19 case within their programs. The NCAA Tournament starts this upcoming Friday. For players to participate, the NCAA requires negative COVID-19 tests for seven consecutive days.
The NCAA’s negative test mandate makes sense. It wants to have a bubble for its marquee event, preventing any mid-tournament outbreaks. That’s why the entire tournament is being held in Indiana, with all teams staying in a connected hotel complex in downtown Indianapolis.
Bubbles, though, require a little bit of foresight. The NCAA, apparently, has none. Because the fundamental problem with its notion of a bubble is timing.
Teams are traveling to Indianapolis over the course of Sunday and Monday. After providing a negative COVID-19 test on the day of arrival and the day after arrival, they can begin practicing. For most programs, this means practices will begin Tuesday — in many cases, less than three days after playing an indoor, unmasked, close contact sporting event.
If you’re shaking your head at that, you’re not alone.
There’s a reason that players began arriving to the NBA’s bubble over the summer 23 days before games began, and it’s not because the league wanted to pay for three extra weeks of hotel rooms. COVID-19, as we’ve understood since early 2020, takes a few days to manifest. You don’t come into contact with the virus and immediately start coughing up a storm.
Billions of people understand this. NCAA President Mark Emmert must not.
Virginia and Kansas, for their sake, need a minimum of five players to continue testing negative in order to play in a game. The good news for them is they appear to have caught their COVID-19 cases early, seeing as no further players or coaches tested positive over the weekend.
The bad news is that neither team can practice until the day before the NCAA Tournament starts. Even worse, any players who test positive between now and then will miss the first weekend.
A very likely scenario looks like this: Virginia, not having practiced in a week, comes out rusty and barely escapes Ohio on Saturday. Without proper conditioning, they play two days later against Creighton and get run out of the gym.
“When you have a pause like that and you haven’t played or touched a basketball for 10-plus days, all I can recall, it will take you four or five days to get out of shape,” Juwan Howard said in February, after Michigan had a two-week shutdown that forced it to go 23 days between games.
Back then, the Wolverines had a week of practice time to get their legs under them and recover from that time off. Virginia and Kansas won’t have that luxury.
That’s bad enough.
What’s worse is if a player contracted COVID-19 on Saturday, when there were 30 NCAA Tournament teams in action. The average incubation period for COVID-19 is five to seven days, meaning said player would likely test positive later this week. His team, having all been close contacts, would almost certainly have to drop out of the tournament.
Their season wouldn’t end in a hard-fought 40-minute battle that’s remembered for generations. It would end in a testing room somewhere inside the Indiana Convention Center.
Hopefully, for the sake of every athlete who’s put four years of work into reaching this moment, that doesn’t happen.
But if it does, Mark Emmert and the NCAA are to blame. Bubbles across the sporting world laid out the blueprint: Have a seven-day quarantine and start the damn tournament next week. We’ve waited two years, one more week would go by in a flash.
Instead, Emmert acted like a kid who just opened a Lego set on Christmas morning. Patience went out the window.
All we can hope for now is that no kid’s college career goes along with it.
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