For the first time, teams not invited to the NCAA Tournament will have more to consider than their NIT seeding. The top four teams not in the field of 68 — the “first four out,” in other years — will be put on standby. If any of the chosen 68 have a major COVID event between Selection Sunday and Tuesday, March 16, a bracket-filling replacement will be summoned. After March 16, you play or you forfeit.
The cancellation of last year’s NCAA Tournament was the moment when the masses began to take the pandemic seriously. It also was massively costly for member institutions and the NCAA itself. By August, when nobody was sure there’d be a college football season, Mike Krzyzewski said: “We can’t have it where two years in a row you don’t have the NCAA Tournament.”
(After Duke started 2-2, Krzyzewski averred that everyone should “reassess” the wisdom of playing basketball during COVID. This prompted Alabama’s Nate Oats to say: “Do you think if Coach K hadn’t lost his two non-conference games at home he’d still be saying that?” This just in: College basketball coaches can be catty.)
Duke wound up playing 18 league games, losing half. Boston College and Louisville, also ACC-based, worked 13 conference games. The Georgia Bulldogs had one game canceled/postponed — the opener against Columbus State, scrubbed two hours before tipoff. Georgia State, which will play for the Sun Belt title tonight, had nine cancellations/postponements. Baylor had four games canceled, seven postponed.
Every school that played has traveled a pockmarked road to this installment of March Madness — but here they are, and here they go. This Sunday is Selection Sunday. All roads lead to Indiana, where the entirety of the NCAA Tournament will be held, the bulk in Indianapolis. From here on, there will be no postponements.
Georgia Tech finished its regular season by winning in Winston-Salem on Friday. The ACC Tournament is in Greensboro, which is right next door. As one of the ACC’s top four seeds, Tech was assigned the Grandover Resort as its HQ. The Yellow Jackets’ Tier 1 party of 34 will remain there until the team heads for Indy next week. (An NCAA invitation seems a given.) Tech will hunker down in the Hoosier State until it loses or claims the national championship. Should Tech win it all, it will have been on the road for 33 days.
Said guard Jose Alvarado: “If I’m not home, that means we’re winning … It means I’m coming home with a trophy that’s bigger than what basketball is.”
Said coach Josh Pastner: “The best way is to protect ourselves, which does not guarantee protection — we’re not vaccinated. And If you’re not vaccinated, the next-best thing is to try and create a bubble. The only way to create a bubble is to stay out and just keep with our Tier 1 Group … If we play for the (national) championship, we’ll fly home (from Indianapolis) the morning of (April) 6th; if we lose, we’ll come back the next morning. We’re not coming back until one of those things happens. It’s the best way to control a situation that’s impossible to control. You’re dealing with a virus that’s invisible.”
From here until season’s end, Tech will test its 34 travelers daily. Each player has his own room. Each has been instructed not to share an elevator with anyone outside the traveling party. Each will be allowed to see family members only in the lobby at a social distance with masks required. Oh, and don’t think about touching the shrimp cocktail with an ungloved hand. Longtime publicist Mike Stamus committed that venial sin Sunday. This sent Pastner into a teaching-moment tizzy.
This is Week 1 of what could be a five-week journey. Moses Wright, named the ACC’s player of the year Monday, expressed regret that he hasn’t been able to go swimming, but for that to happen, the pool would have to be closed and then disinfected. (And remember, three other teams — Virginia, Florida State and Virginia Tech — will be checking into the Grandover soon.)
Said Alvarado: “It’s a little boring, but we know what we’re here for. We’re trying to win a championship.”
As for school: The Jackets were already taking virtual classes. Alvarado again: “When you’re winning, teachers love you.”
Said Pastner: “Two of our young men are fathers. They don’t get to see their kids or their girlfriends this month. It’s not easy. I don’t get to see my wife or my kids. It’s not easy for anybody.”
For more than a decade, Tech wasn’t good enough to reach the NCAA’s proverbial bubble. Having just finished fourth in the 15-team ACC, the Jackets don’t have to worry about getting in. Their concern is in staying healthy enough to keep playing. Toward that end, Pastner has built a different sort of bubble, which means he’s worried about everything. That shrimp cocktail could be the difference between One Shining Moment and One Fat Forfeit.
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