Expect the unexpected as most unpredictable NCAA Tournament opens against backdrop of pandemic

NCAA Tournament in a pandemic: “This is really going to be something to watch and a great case study for someone to write about one day.”

Editor’s note: This article was originally published by USA TODAY Sports and has been republished in its entirety below. 

There will be 68 teams and then 64, then 32, 16, eight, four, two and, by the end of the first Monday in April, one national champion.

There will be upsets, buzzer-beaters and Cinderellas, and when it’s all said and done the music will play: memorable moments will roll to the tune of “One Shining Moment,” the ubiquitous anthem of March Madness.

And that’s pretty much where the similarities will end.

There is no blueprint and no roadmap for conducting an NCAA Tournament amid the protocols and measures that have defined everyday life since last March, when the cancellation of the men’s and women’s tournaments forced college athletics to come to grips with the new normal created by the coronavirus pandemic.

While several major sporting events have been conducted in the shadow of COVID-19, the tournament represents a uniquely daunting challenge: three weekends of games involving dozens of teams featuring hundreds of players and coaches held at multiple venues in the NCAA’s backyard.

“This is really going to be something to watch and a great case study for someone to write about one day,” said Wichita State athletics director Darron Boatright.

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A regular season that began as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was advising Americans not to travel because of a national surge in COVID-19 cases would go on to have hundreds of games canceled or postponed due to the pandemic, with most conferences shortening or nearly eliminating non-conference play. One conference, the Ivy League, chose to sit out the season.

Earlier this week, a positive result involving at least one person within Duke’s program ended the Blue Devils’ season, snapping one of the nation’s longest active streaks of tournament appearances. One day later, Virginia and Kansas were forced to withdraw from conference tournaments after positive tests, further illustrating the tenuousness of this year’s postseason — similar outbreaks this month could destroy brackets and insert asterisks into what is historically a controversy-free national championship.

“I told our young men they have every reason to be disappointed, but it is still very important how they choose to respond,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said in a statement. “We are exhausting all options to participate in the NCAA Tournament.”

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