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NCAA's novel March Madness plan could work, if we can make it there

Dan Wetzel
·Columnist
·4-min read

College basketball isn’t precisely sure how it will start its season — no less than Iona coach Rick Pitino is calling for it to be pushed back of a couple of months — but the NCAA has released a plan on how to finish it.

Back home again in Indiana.

All of it this time.

At least that’s the most likely location for what the NCAA is calling March Madness “in a single geographic area.”

No more scattering teams across America only to have sub regionals lead to regionals that lead to the Final Four. This season, in the midst of a pandemic, the men’s basketball tournament will bring 68 teams to the same general location to play 67 games.

The NCAA says it is already in “preliminary talks” to make the Indianapolis area that home site. Indy was already set to host the 2021 Final Four. It’s also home to the NCAA’s headquarters and a longtime stronghold for basketball in general and the college and high school game in particular.

The move makes plenty of sense. Cut down on travel, and streamline operations and protocols. It would allow for the NCAA to run something at least mimicking the NBA-style bubble (it won’t be that strict) that can protect the event.

The NCAA isn't sure when it will start the men's basketball season, but it has a plan to finish it. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
The NCAA isn't sure when it will start the men's basketball season, but it has a plan to finish it. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

After having to cancel the entire 2020 NCAA tournament, the goal should be to get this played.

Somehow. Somewhere. Some way.

This required the NCAA to bail on 13 sites that were set to host some part of the tourney. Those locations have all been pushed to future NCAA tourneys, though, mostly in 2024 and 2025. With the possibility of no fans in attendance in 2021, the economic impact of hosting an NCAA sub regional or regional for a city or region would be vastly diminished anyway.

Better to wait until fans can come and spend.

“We have learned so much from monitoring other successful sporting events in the last several months, and it became clear it’s not feasible to manage this complex championship in so many different states with the challenges presented by the pandemic,” said NCAA senior vice president Dan Gavitt. “However, we are developing a solid plan to present a safe, responsible and fantastic March Madness tournament unlike any other we’ve experienced.”

The tournament won’t be the same. Gavitt said there may be a delay following Selection Sunday to allow for teams to quarantine. Traditionally the “First Four” games begin about 48 hours after the selection show.

While there won’t be a true bubble in Indy the way the NBA did it in Orlando this year, the NCAA will be able to provide a somewhat controlled situation at a string of area hotels.

And the tournament field quickly dwindles in the NCAAs — from 68 to 16 in less than a week. So that helps.

There is still a lot to be ironed out.

Would the NCAA use only colleges? Butler and IUPUI are both Division I schools in the city, but Purdue, Indiana and Ball State aren’t too far away. There is also the NBA’s Bankers Life Fieldhouse and the NFL’s Lucas Oil Stadium.

The Final Four was supposed to be staged at Lucas Oil, but that would be overkill if there aren’t fans (or if there are limited fans). However, the football stadium could host multiple early-round games at the same time depending on how the court is lined up.

And then, of course, there’s the state’s numerous historic and sizable high school gyms — the New Castle Fieldhouse seats 9,325, more than Duke’s Cameron Indoor Arena.

That might add some local flair and warm the hearts of hoop purists. It’s also extremely unlikely. The NCAA will need broadcasting capabilities and will try to simplify whatever it can. So, no, we probably won’t get the title game at Milan High, even though I think you’ll find the exact same measurements as back home in Indianapolis.

It all sounds good. The hard part is getting there, which is Pitino’s point. He calls trying to play a season under the current situation with COVID-19 an impossibility. The spiking cases and current protocols all but assure postponements, cancellations and teams missing stars.

He wants “May Madness.” He has a point. Maybe a vaccine will allow a more normal season.

Gavitt, however, said the season is still on schedule to begin Nov. 25 and “the plan right now is to conduct the NCAA tournament in March and April when scheduled.”

We’ll see.

It’s a long way from now until spring, with uncertainties over games, testing standards, selection criteria and everything else.

At least the NCAA has decided this much: In a time like no other, it’s more than OK to run a tournament like no other.

March and April in Central Indiana. Here’s to hoping it happens as planned.

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