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A total of 68 teams have punched their tickets. Now comes the difficult part.

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A total of 68 teams have punched their tickets. Now comes the difficult part.
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A total of 68 teams have punched their tickets. Now comes the difficult part.

A total of 68 teams have punched their tickets. Now comes the difficult part.

 

The 68 teams whose names appeared in the March Madness bracket just wanted to rejoice: the next four or five days are likely to be the most nerve-wracking of their seasons.

Welcome to Bubble Ball, where no player will turn up for the games in Indianapolis without seven negative COVID checks, and no team is really “in” before the ball is tipped off.

“Which of the two possible season-ending assessments was more stressful? ” Drexel coach Zach Spiker said, referring to the obstacles ahead. “Testing, practicing, boarding the bus in Philadelphia, waiting for that answer, the response time to say, ‘We’re all negative here,’ Let’s get out of here now. Let’s get to Indianapolis,’” says the narrator.

Drexel only played 19 games en route to the Colonial Athletic Conference title due to COVID—19 problems, which is around 11 less than average. The Dragons were granted an automatic bid to the tournament as a result of this. What is the prize? They get a No. 16 seed and an opening-round matchup with top-seeded Illinois, in addition to a battery of nasal swabs.

Other top seeds included Michigan, Baylor, and Gonzaga, which is the overall No. 1 and a 2-1 favorite to win it all and become the first team to go unbeaten since the Indiana Hoosiers in 1976.

Many of the games will be played in and around Indianapolis over the course of 19 days, which is the most significant change from a typical March Madness. There’s no need to be concerned about who was sent to Spokane or stranded in Memphis. However, the NCAA kept the area names — West, East, South, and Midwest — to keep the bracket looking regular.

More on the bracket: A lot of bubble players, including UCLA and Michigan State, are emerging from unlikely locations. Both were widely expected to breeze into the tournament, but they were matched in a First Four matchup on Thursday as 11 seeds. Wichita State takes on Drake in the other 11-11 tie.

Louisville, Saint Louis, Colorado State, and Mississippi, for example, will happily swap places with them. And it’s always possible. The NCAA placed team Nos. 69-72 on standby in case a program in the 68-team draw had to withdraw due to a COVID-19 outbreak, one of many first-of-its-kind moves made to accommodate a one-of-a-kind tournament.

They have until Tuesday night to inform the NCAA that they will be unable to participate. A team that withdraws after that will actually be sent home, while its opponent will receive a walkover into the next round.

“If the teams keep doing the great work that they’ve done just to get to the tournament,” selection committee chairman Mitch Barnhart said, “we’ll have a very safe, very balanced 67-game tournament and we’ll crown a champion.”

But, to emphasize how different and complicated this season has been, the committee spent a lot of time worrying about two shoo-ins, Kansas and Virginia, both of whom withdrew from their conference tournaments last week due to outbreaks.

Both are following correct procedures, according to Barnhart, in order to make it to Indianapolis for their games on Saturday. In the West, Kansas is the No. 3 seed, while Virginia, the defending champion (from 2019), is the fourth seed.

Kansas coach Bill Self said, “The one lesson I’ve learned from this, perhaps more than anything else, is to expect the unexpected.”

After all, that’s what March Madness is all about: three weeks of busted brackets, sudden surprises, teams that finish what they started, and the occasional visit from an old friend.

Can you recall Sister Jean? She’s 101 now, and her squad, Loyola Chicago, is back in the NCAA tournament, aiming to repeat their 2018 “miracle” run to the Final Four.

Do you recall Patrick Ewing? He took Georgetown to national prominence in the 1980s, and now he’s back as coach, leading the Hoyas to a Big East Tournament title and a surprising NCAA Tournament appearance.

And what about Rick Pitino? After being fired from Louisville following the school’s unethical recruitment scandal a few years ago, his career was all but over. He’s also back as coach of Iona, which won its conference tournament and advanced to Indy despite only playing 13 regular-season games. Pitino isn’t used to the Gaels being a 15th seed at this time of year.

“There’s a little role reversal,” he admitted, “but you still have to play the game.”

They’ll play, of course. From the First Four on Thursday to the Final Four on April 5, which finishes with the nets going down.

Between now and then, a lot could go wrong. There’s a lot that has to go well.

It feels nice to have a bracket to fill out a year after the tournament was canceled in the early days of the pandemic.

Even though it is a little unusual.

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