Emerging from the sadness of the COVID-19 cancellation last March, get ready for a renewal of the Madness one year later.
From bursting bubbles to an unprecedented bubble format in Indiana, this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament promises to be unlike any other, at least off the court.
The 68-team field for the Big Dance was revealed Sunday night, and the uncertainty surrounding 2021 March Madness extends beyond the typical Cinderella upsets and runs that make it one of the most-watched and anticipated sporting events on the calendar each year.
“Certainly, there were a lot of things that were different about this year’s selection process,” NCAA Tournament committee chair Mitch Barnhart said on the CBS Selection Show. “As you use the words pivots and pauses that we’ve had to deal with and protocols that have become part of our vernacular, it has become a part of the committee room and conversations, as well.
“Resumes being unequal, and all the different things and stops and starts, but at the end of the day, we saw some really high quality, incredible basketball to evaluate as a committee.”
The top overall seed, as expected, will be No. 1 ranked Gonzaga (26-0) in the West. The Bulldogs will try to become the first team since Indiana in 1976 to complete an undefeated season. The other No. 1 seeds are Baylor (22-2) in the South and two Big 10 schools: regular-season champion Michigan (20-4) in the East and the conference tournament winners, Illinois (23-6) in the Midwest.
Beginning with the pushed-back First Four on Thursday –– pitting Wichita State against Drake, and a heavyweight matchup between Michigan State and UCLA for the No. 11 seeds in the West and East, respectively — the 68-team field will play all 67 games in Indiana, mostly in Indianapolis, with the championship game slated for April 5 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Other locations will include the Indiana Pacers’ home arena (Bankers Life Fieldhouse), Indiana University’s Assembly Hall in Bloomington and Purdue’s Mackey Arena in West Lafayette.
Interestingly, the Hoosiers (12-15) missed the tournament for the fourth straight time, although the Boilermakers (18-9) are in as a No. 4 seed to North Texas in their first game.
Power conference schools such as Kansas, 2019 national champion Virginia and Duke – which didn’t qualify for the first time since 1995 — had to bow out of their conference tournaments due to positive COVID-19 tests within their programs. The NCAA will have replacement teams standing by if they or other schools from multi-bid conferences return positive results before the start of the tournament.
The “first four out” of Louisville, Colorado State, St. Louis and Ole Miss are the standby teams for those conferences. If a one-bid conference school withdraws, they will be replaced by another team from their conference.
Kansas (20-8) is seeded third in the West Region and is slated to play Eastern Washington in its first game, while Virginia (18-6) is seeded fourth in the same region and will face Ohio.
The traditional first two rounds of 64 and 32 also have been pushed back one day each – meaning Friday through Monday, with the Sweet 16 slated to be played the following weekend (March 27-28).
As for local schools, Iona (12-5) — the fifth school taken to the tourney by first-year coach Rick Pitino — won the MAAC tournament and will face Alabama as a No. 15 seed. Rutgers (15-11) will make its first NCAA appearance since 1991 as a 10-seed out of the Big 10 against Clemson in the Midwest Region.
Two adoptive teams with large local followings also made the field – Syracuse avoided the First Four and will face No. 6 San Diego State as the 11th seed in Midwest, while No. 7 Connecticut will play Maryland in the East.