There’s a reason so many college basketball coaches questioned whether playing in conference tournaments was worth the risk this March.
They feared the exact nightmare scenario Virginia and Kansas are now going through.
On Friday morning, Virginia withdrew from the ACC tournament after an unidentified person in the program tested positive for COVID-19. By Friday afternoon, Kansas also had removed itself from the Big 12 tournament because of a positive test.
The test results forced the cancellation of both teams' conference tournament semifinal games and could jeopardize their hopes of playing in the NCAA tournament next week. In a statement, Virginia described its status for the NCAA men's tournament as “to be determined.” Kansas coach Bill Self said he looked forward to preparing his team for the NCAA tournament “probably in a unique way.”
To be eligible for the NCAA tournament, players and coaches must test negative for COVID-19 daily for seven straight days before arriving in Indianapolis. Testing began already in anticipation of teams arriving as soon as Monday.
It’s unclear how many Virginia players or coaches will be able to satisfy the NCAA’s protocols. NCAA vice president of men’s basketball Dan Gavitt has said that teams need just five healthy players to be allowed to play in a tournament game. The NCAA tournament’s Round of 64 tips off next Friday and Saturday in Indianapolis.
“I’m hurting for our players, especially our seniors,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “I told our young men they have every reason to be disappointed, but it is still very important how they choose to respond. We are exhausting all options to participate in the NCAA tournament.”
While Virginia and Kansas are not the first teams to have to withdraw from their conference tournaments due to COVID-19 issues, their situations differ from Duke, Northern Iowa, Holy Cross and all the rest. Those teams all needed to win their conference tournaments to hear their names on Selection Sunday — or in Duke’s case at least reach the ACC title game. On the other hand, the Cavaliers (18-6) and Jayhawks (20-8) were already a shoo-in to make the field of 68 and project as top-four seeds if they’re able to participate.
If a positive test dashes Virginia’s or Kansas’ dreams of playing in the NCAA tournament, the shame will be how avoidable that outcome was. The lack of a week-long cushion between the last day of conference tournaments and the tip-off of the NCAA tournament seemed like a glaring mistake weeks ago.
How easy would it have been to finish all conference tournaments by Sunday, March 7, and to reveal the brackets that evening instead? Then there could have been a 11-day hiatus until tip-off of the First Four, theoretically enough time for any teams with COVID issues to quarantine and get healthy again.
Of course there is no guarantee players would not have contracted the virus during the break in games, but the 68 tournament teams could have gone to the NCAA’s controlled environment in Indianapolis a week early. There is a better chance of keeping players virus-free in a hotel under those strict guidelines than there is on campus or while playing conference tournament games.
The other drawback to holding conference tournaments a week early would have been missing the chance to get as many games on TV as possible during March. There surely would have been a decline in visibility and TV revenue, not to mention some networks unhappy with the lack of inventory leading up to the start of the NCAA tournament.
Those are valid concerns, but are they reason enough not to build in a week-long cushion before the start of the NCAA tournament? Are they reason enough not to do everything possible to prevent what is happening to Virginia?
The NCAA makes over $1 billion per year from Turner/CBS for the rights to televise March Madness. Whatever money is lost from cutting the regular season by a week would have been a pittance by comparison.
If the whole goal of this unusual college basketball season was to get to the NCAA tournament and to play it as normally as possible, then holding conference tournaments the second week of March was a mistake — and an avoidable one. They could have followed the example of the Atlantic 10, which wisely moved the bulk of its men’s tournament ahead a week to afford more time for any COVID-19 issues.
The lingering question now is whether the remaining conference tournaments will plow ahead as scheduled.
Some have no choice, as they have teams still trying to play their way into the field of 68. But those whose remaining teams are all NCAA tournament locks, like the Big 12 and ACC, might want to strongly consider their options.
The NCAA tournament dreams of Virginia and Kansas may be in jeopardy. No need for others to join them.
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