If you’re someone that waits all year for the opportunity to pick brackets for the NCAA Basketball Tournament just so you can tear them up when your entire final four loses in the first round, your time has finally returned. After last year’s event was cancelled right at the onset of Covid, when cancelling things because of Covid seemed crazy, we now have a full-on, 68 team tournament staring us right in the face, all beginning either Thursday or Friday, depending on your perspective on the play-in games.
As you most likely know, this tournament won’t look like any other. All 68 teams are Indianapolis, or somewhere nearby, and will play all of their games in one of the regions arenas. Teams have been tested repeatedly, and they’re pretty much now restricted to their hotels with the exception of scheduled practice at nearby courts. The women’s tournament has the same set up down in San Antonio, which means the basketball players on tournament teams will be the first people in history to visit the city without going to the Alamo and the Riverwalk. Outside of basketball itself, this tournament will have none of the usual pageantry, fanfare, packed arenas, and everything that comes with sending college basketball teams across the country for the world’s largest gambling event. We’ll still have One Shining Moment, of course, but not the thousand other sparks along the way.
The plan to keep the Tournament Covid-free seems about as good as you can get, considering all the moving parts that could act as one giant science lab. It’s entirely possible that someone tests positive, and then that team has to go home. It’s also possible that creates a domino effect that redefines the phrase “last team standing.” But overall, compared to the general risk already assumed by the American public in living with the virus, I’d say this event is relatively low risk. And certainly far lower than other college spring break activities, say, Miami Beach right now.
I’m guessing that many of you, even avid college basketball fans, have had a hard time getting into this season, and probably haven’t watched nearly as much as you normally do. That may have been exacerbated by the reality that some teams took weeks off at a time to deal with positive cases and quarantines. Louisville basically played two seasons split in half, and I believe Rick Pitino has assured us that his entire Iona team has already had the virus. So you may not have the normal fevered pitch a lot of us usually feel this time a year, when we’re trying to figure out how to make it less obvious that we’re ditching work for two straight days. And honestly, now that you’ve been stuck at home for the last year, playing hooky to stay at home doesn’t seem so fun anymore. You also may be having a hard time knowing which teams are good, who’s overrated, and whether Utah State can pull an upset. For example, some of you may have just learned that neither Duke nor Kentucky are in the Tournament, and Illinois is all of the sudden really good. This is a natural side effect both Covid and not talking to human beings for several months, which is how most of us figure out who to pick anyway. So filling out a bracket this year may feel both impossible and perhaps almost self-indulgent, which sums up pretty much any activity of relative pleasure over the past 12 months. That said, I have entered my pool and am fully looking forward to the moment when the Florida Gators break my heart. That, if nothing else, would feel pretty normal to me.
I suppose if we were to take a step back and be somewhat metaphoric, this NCAA Tournament and our experience with it is not unlike pretty much everything we do now and moving forward. We know it’s important, in some cases critical to reconstruct normal life – not just for you, but for society in general. We know there are ways to do things safely, or at least more safely. And we tend to feel some form of guilt associated with whatever it is, particularly knowing that other people may be at risk to make it happen. It could be eating at a restaurant, getting a haircut, going to the gym – or watching the NCAA Basketball Tournament. So that confusion I’m feeling about one my favorite times of the year, well, I guess I better get used to it. It’s called 2021.
So, if you’re so inclined, enjoy the Tournament, eyes wide open. And not that you want my advice, but take Baylor to win it all.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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