With the arrival of “Selection Sunday,” the NCAA Division 1 Basketball Championship tournament brackets have officially been released. “March Madness” is officially in full swing. However, looking back on this pandemic season; How has this season varied from past seasons and what impact could COVID-19 have on the tournament? Through analyzing the four #1 seeds in the tournament, we can gain insight into the answers to these questions.
The pandemic has caused the overall #1 seed, Gonzaga, to miss seven games. The most important being an early-season matchup against the #1 seed from the South region, Baylor. The implications of the missed game were massive as it was an early matchup of the top two teams. The game was slated as the most anticipated matchup up until that point. The result of missing highly anticipated matchups could be fatal, as wins against ranked opponents hold a higher value than other slated games. The more importance a win holds, the more implications it has on the selection committee when reviewing resumes for tournament play. Michigan, the #1 seed in the East missed six games, all within their conference schedule. One of the missed games was a highly anticipated matchup against the #1 seed from the Midwest and then ranked #4, Illinois. The implications of missing conference games could result in lower seeding in conference tournaments along with losing potentially high-valued conference wins. Winning the conference tournament grants an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament, so seeding is crucial to winning the conference tournament, which is crucial to bracket bidding.
Michigan played the Fighting Illini later in their schedule, resulting in a loss. The absence of the first game between the two holds plenty of uncertainty. If they met before, would Michigan have evened the series at one apiece, or would the Illini have swept them, increasing their bracket stock, or would the outcome of the game be different if Michigan did not have to delay their games and continued playing at the same extremely high level? The Illinois program did not shut down, but they missed five games. The effects of shutting down an entire program could be detrimental to the performance or morale of a team. A complete program shutdown lasts a week minimum, which could prohibit the development and retention of skills, along with the installation and development of game plans.
With the overall health of programs around the country looming large from week to week and the big dance approaching, coaches, players, and staff are on high alert. In the past week, there have been examples of a failed protocol as Duke, Virginia, and Kansas all withdrew from their conference tournaments due to a positive test within the program. Among all the protocols for the NCAA Tournament, there are two very important protocols: “each team must have at least 5 eligible players”, and “if teams are impacted by COVID-19 they will be forced to withdraw and a contingency plan will be drawn up to replace the team.” Essentially no matter how large the impact of COVID-19, as long as a team can lineup five players, they can participate in the tournament giving teams some hope and alleviate some fears among programs. With two of the “Blue Blood” schools missing the tournament in Duke and Kentucky, the second protocol observed could be the newest bid to participate. With the possibility of a team testing positive at any moment’s notice, the NCAA has ruled that a team could be replaced by another team that did not qualify for the tournament originally. The usual unfavored, underdog “Cinderella Story” make take a spin this year to a five-player under-manned and underpowered team instead. Or even a replacement team that goes on to shock the world.