This is March Madness 2021: the return of the great madness

Indiana, the state where basketball is more than just a sport, is hosting a very special edition (in semi-bubble format) of the great college tournament.


This year yes: there will be madness in March. 2020 was the first without March Madness, the great college basketball tournament that literally drives the United States crazy, the great dance, since its inception in 1939. A dizzying, unappealable blow to an edition that was to begin on March 17, until ending in the Final Four at the Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, but that fell on March 12, a day after the NBA stopped due to the positive of Rudy Gobert and world sport collapsed like a domino pushed by a pandemic that At that time, there were 1,300 cases and 38 deaths in the United States.

After a few hours of hysteria and search for impossible solutions, the NCAA gave in, stopped and began to think about 2021 while it began to lick wounds that went beyond 600 million dollars (much more depending on how much indirect income is added ), a blow for a sports and media monster that generates more than 1,000 million a year for the great network of the College. While the universities, under minimums, distributed a fund of 246 million that had been 611 in 2019, the NCAA squeezed an insurance of more than 250 million and CBS and Turner were left with a span of noses without one of the jewels of the crown, one for whose rights they paid in 2011 almost 11,000 million to retain them until 2024 ... and added another 8,800 million in 2018 to extend the agreement until 2032. Without a tournament, the more than 800 million that the televisions were going to invest became little more of 113 while the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), like all world sport, shivered.

Madness, in semi-bubble format

One year later, and with the vaccination program encouraging optimism in a country where the impact of the pandemic has been enormous, including a change of government, there will be March Madness: there will be madness. The tournament begins today with the preliminary one that is the First Four, the preliminary crosses that will leave the 68 teams classified (of the 350 universities around the country that start the season in the different categories) in the 64 that will enter the final table, as always divided into four regions from which the four winners who will compete in the Final Four will come out. Between Friday and Monday the first two rounds will be played, for the 27th and 28th there is the Sweet 16 and for 29th and 30th the Elite 8, the regional finals with the last eight survivors that lead to the Final Four of the 3rd (semifinals ) and 5 (final) April.

Gonzaga, undefeated (26-0), leads Baylor, Illinois, Michigan and Alabama as a great favorite in a table in which the last in the ranking are Norfolk State and Appalachian State and from which Loyola Maryland of Santi Aldama, the Spaniard who has skyrocketed his courage for the next NBA draft. The professional league will have a thousand eyes, as always, on Madness, especially on the members of what must be the next generation of stars. A litter that aims very high and in which they stand out, of those who will be in the tournament, Cade Cunningham (Oklahoma State, clear favorite to number 1), Evan Mobley (USC) and Jalen Suggs, of the very favorite Gonzaga.

Impossible surprises will come, heroic comebacks, movie-winning shots ... Madness will come, one that has brought a bomb from the previous one: there are not three giants like Duke, Louisville and Kentucky. The last time the three stayed out was in 1976. And yes there will be Patrick Ewing, who has completed a fairy tale with the Georgetown in which he played before joining the Knicks. Ewing has led to the Big East title and tournament ticket to a college that started with less than a 3% chance of being dancing in March. And he did it by winning, in addition, in what was his home, Madison Square Garden.

It will not, of course, be a normal tournament. There will be no marching bands, cheerleaders, and armies of fans in the stands. It will not be played in the planned venues (Dayton, Minneapolis, Denver, New York, Memphis ...) before the Final Four, which will maintain its assigned home: Indianapolis. The state where basketball is more than just a sport, Indiana, will in fact be the venue for the entire tournament. It will be played in six pavilions, only two outside the capital and none of them more than 110 kilometers. Among the venues, of course, the home of the Pacers, the Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and the colts' gigantic Lucas Oil Stadium (NFL), where the Final Four will be played.

A totally hermetic bubble like the one in the NBA will not close at Disney World, but it will be conditions that are not very different, what the NCAA has called a semi-bubble or controlled ecosystem, a huge challenge both in terms of logistics and, obviously, health. If there were 22 NBA teams in Florida, 68 universities will play here, with groups of 34 people per team. All will stay in four hotels, connected to the Convention Center, 52,000 square meters in the heart of downtown Indianapolis that will be the hub of the tournament and will also house 12 training courts and rooms for meetings, tactical talks and video sessions. Lucas Oil Stadium will have only one court during the Final Four but two in the previous rounds. These are called Unity and Equality, a nod to the fight for social justice and inclusion. There will be public, but under strict control and with a maximum of 25% of the capacity of each pavilion.

All participants will have an individual hotel room, of course the use of masks, social distance and control of contacts with workers of the organization and hotel staff will be taken care of. There will be daily tests and the teams will land after flying with N95 masks, goggles and without access to food and drink during the journey. Everyone who accesses the heart of the tournament will have to have linked seven days of negative tests, and 2,000 volunteers will work in 5,000 shifts for an organization that has arranged 150 buses to transport the equipment.

The NCAA knows it has to exercise extreme caution, especially in the early days of the tournament, before the withering eliminations leave the 68-team draw at 16. Jennifer Pope Baker, who serves as the liaison between the local sports authority and the NCAA, says that the most difficult thing will be "the laundry", a tremendous logistical challenge that includes training clothes, uniforms, towels, sheets ... everything that 68 teams move and consume, of which half, just a year later, did not seem destined to be in the frustrated 2020 tournament.

The revolution has been profound. Kansas, the great favorite then, now comes from the 12th position in the ranking, far from the main contenders for media ... and fans. Because, once again, the real madness will be in the betting houses and the brackets, that kind of pools in which a table is filled in which you have to get the results of all the crosses right until the very end. A deeply American tradition and in which it is almost impossible to make full, to guess each triumph in each crossing until the final resolution. Doing so, achieving a perfect bracket, is more difficult, according to statesmen, than winning the main annual lottery in the country twice in a row buying only one tenth a year: one in 9.2 quintillion, which does not prevent that, calculates the American Gaming Association, this year up to 47 million Americans are going to gamble, legally or illegally, on the tournament.

Brackets drop (an estimated 8% compared to 2019) to 37 million, approximately, due to the effect of teleworking: you don't want to do it so much if you can't argue, hesitate and suffer with your office colleagues. Before the pandemic, losses due to low productivity of more than 2.3 billion dollars were traditionally estimated during the weeks of a tournament that usually triggers the production of beer barrels: from 14 on average during the rest of the months of the year, to 17.5 in March. What brackets do not provide will be provided by the increase in online bets (17.8 million bets of this type are expected compared to 5.8 in 2019) and a growth of more than 75% in bets in participation in bookmakers face-to-face. Fans also believe, like experts, Gonzaga, a 17% favorite, ahead of Florida State and Baylor.

Women's Madness Focuses on Texas

The great college dance, March Madness, will have a women's edition after the 2020 edition also had to be canceled. NC State, South Carolina, Stanford and UConn arrive as seeded and favorites to a tournament of 64 teams that starts on Sunday and will end with the Final Four, from April 2 to 4. It will all be played in the San Antonio area, with games on six five-pavilion courts in San Marcos, Austin and San Antonio, with a final fireworks at the legendary Alamodome. Unlike in the men's tournament, the public will not be allowed in the first rounds, and will only enter from Sweet 16, the round of 16, and reduced to 17% of the capacity of the pavilions.

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