March Madness 2020
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An NCAA Tournament with empty arenas? It can’t be ruled out

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Imagine an NCAA Tournament with no fans in the arenas due to the coronavirus.

What normally would be thought an impossibility isn’t so far-fetched as the United States and the rest of the world attempt to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.

An advocacy group for college athletes has urged the NCAA to consider holding its winter sports championships with no fans, and the idea has not been dismissed out of hand.

“If you can think of it, it’s something that we’ve gone through an analysis around,” NCAA Chief Operating Officer Donald Remy told Bloomberg News on Tuesday. “We’ve contingency planned for all circumstances.”

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The NCAA declined further comment to The Associated Press on the possibility of no fans in the stands. Presumably, the games still would be televised.

The virus has sickened more than 92,000 people and killed 3,100 worldwide, the vast majority of them in China. Nine people have died in the U.S., all in Washington state. Most cases have been mild.

Also Tuesday, the NCAA announced it has established an advisory panel of medical, public health and epidemiology experts and NCAA schools to address the virus, also known as COVID-19. NCAA Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Hainline will lead the group.

“The NCAA is committed to conducting its championships and events in a safe and responsible manner,” Remy said in a statement. “Today we are planning to conduct our championships as planned; however, we are evaluating the COVID-19 situation daily and will make decisions accordingly.”

Hainline said the advisory group will make recommendations on competition based on evolving medical protocols established by the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health and state and local authorities.

“We are in daily contact with the CDC and are advising leadership on the Association’s response to this outbreak,” he said.

The NCAA generates nearly $1 billion a year, most of it coming from the men’s basketball tournament through media rights fees, corporate sponsorships and ticket sales.

Total attendance for the 2019 tournament was 688,753, an average of 19,132 per game. The Final Four at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis drew 72,711 for the semifinals and 72,062 for the championship game.

Attendance for the 2019 women’s basketball tournament was 274,873, an average of 6,545 per game.

The men’s tournament is scheduled to open March 17 and the women’s tournament begins on March 20. The men’s Final Four will be played the first weekend in April at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, and the women’s Final Four is set for Smoothie King Center in New Orleans.

The NCAA wrestling tournament is March 19-21 at U.S. Bank Stadium, the first time the event has been held in a football stadium. The tournament is expected to break the attendance record of 113,743, set in Cleveland in 2018.

Conference basketball tournaments are set to begin next week, and the Big East, Pac-12, Mountain West, West Coast and Western Athletic conferences said in statements to the AP that they are proceeding as if their tournaments will go on but monitoring the situation.

The WAC noted that if its tournament is not completed, the tournament’s No. 1 seed will advance to the NCAA Tournament as the league’s automatic qualifier.

Sporting events across the globe have been canceled or contested with no spectators allowed in stadiums or arenas.

Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association, urged the NCAA and the schools to take steps to protect athletes.

“Precautions should include cancelling all auxiliary events that put players in contact with crowds such as meet and greets, and press events,” he said in a statement. “Athletic programs should also take every possible measure to sanitize buses and airplanes used to transport players.

“In regard to the NCAA’s March Madness Tournament and other athletic events, there should also be a serious discussion about holding competitions without an audience present. … The NCAA and its colleges must act now, there is no time to waste.”

The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.