Presenting the first-ever all-Indy bubblicious Big Dance

The NCAA essentially canceled its 2020 tournament because of one positive test – Rudy Gobert’s – and Rudy Gobert wasn’t playing for any college. He was, and is, a member of the NBA’s Utah Jazz. But that was a year ago, when what we knew about COVID-19 was infinitesimal and what we didn’t know was terrifying. (Last spring, wipes were considered a much greater safeguard than masks.)

The NCAA will not cancel its 2021 tournament if it gets 100 positive tests, which it won’t. Still, we’ve just seen that even one positive can have ripple effects. Georgia Tech and Florida State were to play Saturday night for the ACC title. In normal years, a team must win at least two games to qualify for the final. Tech and FSU had to win once. The Yellow Jackets’ semifinal was canceled after a Virginia positive; the Seminoles’ quarterfinal was scrubbed because of a Duke positive.

“Survive and advance” was the formula Jim Valvano coined during North Carolina State’s wondrous run to the 1983 ACC and NCAA championships. (Local angles: The Wolfpack won the ACC at the old Omni; they beat Georgia to advance to the NCAA title game against Houston.) To win it all in 2021 will require a third component: Before you can survive/advance, you first need to test negative – and keep testing negative.

The NCAA requires seven consecutive negative tests for a player to be eligible when the Big Dance begins, which is Thursday. The First Four usually is staged on Tuesday/Wednesday, but that’s among the many logistical changes for this year’s installment. Only over its first three days will games be played outside the Indianapolis city limits; Purdue’s Mackey Arena in West Lafayette and Indiana’s Assembly Hall in Bloomington will be used in Week 1.

Once past that, the remaining teams will be housed in Indianapolis. Each will have its own floor in the various hotels; each member of a team’s traveling party of 34 will have his/her own room. Each will be tested daily. Yes, this is a lot of moving parts – the NBA bubble at Disney World housed 22 teams – but the prevailing belief in the industry is that staying safe in Indy won’t be the hard part.

Said Tech coach Josh Pastner via text message Friday, not long after learning his team had made the ACC final: “Just got to get to Indy. Once there, the NCAA takes over everything and you are on complete lockdown.”

The Jackets, as we know, have been on a Pastner-mandated lockdown since arriving in North Carolina on March 4 for their regular-season finale at Wake Forest. Since Tech classes are virtual, there was nothing binding them to Atlanta. They moved down the road from Winston-Salem to Greensboro, where they’ll remain until they board a charter flight for Indianapolis. If the Jackets play for the NCAA title April 5, they’ll have been on the road 34 days and 33 nights.

In the grand scheme, there’ve been few positives during the conference tournaments. Kansas bowed out of the Big 12 after its quarterfinal win; North Carolina A&T, the top seed in the MEAC, was removed before its tournament began. Among the many things we’ve discovered about the virus is that postseason bubbles tend to work. The NBA’s and the NHL’s were airtight. MLB’s version in Texas saw only one positive test – Dodger third baseman Justin Turner was pulled from the clinching game of the World Series in the eighth inning.

Over time, the NCAA has proved itself capable of bungling almost anything, but the integrity of its Indy bubble is a test of the organization itself. The NCAA is headquartered there. It has been planning for its all-Indy tournament for months. The cancellation of last year’s event cost the NCAA and its members nearly a billion dollars. There’s simply too much riding on this version of March Madness for it to fail.

This isn’t to suggest that we won’t see teams forced to forfeit over the next few weeks. We say again: moving parts. But the guess is that what Pastner believes – that NCAA protocols will, in the main, hold fast – will allow the Dance to proceed until someone snips the nets in Lucas Oil Stadium on April 5. It will be a frazzled month for every coach involved, but one will walk away with a trophy.

And will there, you’re asking, be a Bradley’s Bracket Fiasco? Yes indeed. The 32nd edition of our contest will be up and running Sunday night. It would have been the 33rd, but … you know, COVID. We recall that the World Series wasn’t played in 1994. It was in 1995. An Atlanta team won. There’ll be an Atlanta team in this NCAA Tournament. Just sayin’.

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