NCAA considers single-state bubble for 2021 March Madness

The NCAA is considering a bubble-type atmosphere for its 2021 Division I men’s basketball tournament, a potentially major change that would allow March Madness to march on amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The NCAA’s men’s basketball committee announced Monday that it had chosen to scrap its traditional tournament plan for 13 first- and second-weekend sites.

Instead, it said in a news release, “the committee has decided the championship should be held in a single geographic area to enhance the safety and well-being of the event.”

And its first choice for that single geographic area appears to be Indiana.

“NCAA staff are in preliminary talks with the State of Indiana and the city of Indianapolis to potentially host the 68-team tournament around the metropolitan area during the coordinated dates in March and April,” the committee said.

Indianapolis has long been scheduled to host the Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts. The state also boasts Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the home of the NBA’s Pacers; and arenas or gyms on or near the campuses Notre Dame, Purdue, Indiana, Butler, Indiana State and other colleges.

With fan attendance in question due to COVID-19, smaller venues could be capable of hosting first- and second-weekend games as well. Many Indiana high schools also have decently-sized gyms. Indianapolis is smack-dab in the center of the state, so most locations would be drivable.

The tournament is scheduled to tip off on March 16.

With the pandemic still raging, the 2020-21 regular season has become shrouded in uncertainty as well. Non-conference play is scheduled to tip off later this month. But some schools have already delayed or canceled their seasons. Schedules are in flux.

March Madness remains four months away. But the NCAA is already preparing to adapt to an ever-changing environment.

“The committee emphasized the importance of conducting the championship in a manageable geographic area that limits travel and provides a safe and controlled environment with competition and practice venues, medical resources and lodging for teams and officials all within proximity of one another,” the NCAA release said.

Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s SVP of basketball, and Mitch Barnhart, the men’s basketball committee chair, recently spoke about this decision.

The cities previously scheduled, and now no longer scheduled, to host first- and second-weekend games in 2021 were Dayton, Ohio; Boise, Idaho; Dallas; Detroit; Providence, Rhode Island; Lexington, Kentucky; Raleigh, North Carolina; San Jose, California; Wichita, Kansas; Denver; Minneapolis; Brooklyn; and Memphis.

Eight months ago, the 2020 NCAA tournament became the first mega sporting event to be wiped out by COVID-19. Three days before Selection Sunday, the entire event was outright canceled. The cancellation came with significant financial consequences for the NCAA and, by extension, the entire college sports landscape.

The NCAA has spent months figuring out how to ensure that the 2021 edition doesn’t suffer a similar fate. And its answer appears to be a bubble.