The stage is set for the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, and it looks to be a March Madness unlike any other.
For one, the entire tournament will be played in a single state: All rounds of the tournament, which includes 68 teams and 67 games, will be played in Indiana.
For another, some big names will be missing from the action. Neither Duke nor Kentucky, two tournament powerhouse programs with multiple titles to their names, will be in the tournament – the first time that's happened since 1976.
And while Louisville, another perennial tournament favorite, is out, their former coach Rick Pitino is in, as the coach of Iona.
After a year without the tournament, March Madness is back.
But all it takes is a single COVID outbreak to upend the finely calibrated beauty of that plan. More than one and the entire endeavor could crater.
The full bracket has been released and the tournament is set. Click here to see if your team made the big dance.
The biggest unknown leading into a March Madness bracket reveal more than a year in the making had little to do with bubble teams or top seeds. Instead, it was the not-so-simple matter of which programs would be healthy enough to play.
Kansas and Virginia, two programs hit with COVID-19 breakouts over the past week, made it into the bracket released Sunday by the NCAA selection committee, signaling both teams believe they’ll have enough healthy players to be ready for their tip-offs next weekend.
That there was any doubt about the Jayhawks and defending champion Cavaliers securing spots in the 68-team tournament was the most jarring reminder that the 2021 tournament itself is no sure thing.
“There were a lot of different things about this year’s selection process,” said committee chairman Mitch Barnhart, the athletic director at Kentucky.
Fittingly for such an unpredictable season, some teams hoping to sneak in off the bubble were denied when Oregon State and Georgetown — coached by its own former superstar, Patrick Ewing — won their conference tournaments to steal bids they wouldn’t otherwise have won.
Another unexpected entry is a familiar face: Rick Pitino. The coach, ousted at Louisville after a sordid recruiting scandal that enveloped the program for years, led his new team, Iona, from the ninth seed in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference all the way to the league title and the automatic bid that comes with it. The Gaels open Saturday against Alabama. Iona played only 13 regular-season games because of COVID-19 concerns that sidelined the Gaels for weeks. It was that kind of season.
A year later, sports are back, but the hoops the NCAA is jumping through to make this tournament go are a symbol of how far we are from normal.
The decision to place all the games in and around the Indianapolis area is a first-of-its-kind move. Also unique are the quarantine-like situations all teams will be under during their stay. Players will get their own rooms and teams will have their own floors in a cluster of hotels around the downtown convention center. That facility, usually a magnet for fan fests and coaching conferences, will turn into the main practice and meeting area for all the teams. Players will have to produce negative tests for seven days before arriving in Indianapolis to be eligible to play.
And if they’re not? In one of its most eye-grabbing tidbits, the NCAA announced that if a team is hit with the virus but still has five players who can pass the protocol, that’s enough to get on the floor for tip-off.
All just another piece of the puzzle for Americans to consider when they get back to a much-missed rite of spring — filling out their brackets, crossing their fingers and waiting for madness to begin.
Here are some highlights from Selection Sunday:
Gonzaga is the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, locked in a tough West bracket where they could face off against Virginia and Kansas, two teams that had to withdraw from their conferences tournaments because of COVID-19 issues. The Virginia Cavaliers were the champions in 2019 and there was some concern that coronavirus concerns might keep them out of the tournament after they had to withdraw from the ACC tournament.
Baylor is the top seed in the South in the NCAA Tournament, a No. 1 seed for the first time, and could face either North Carolina or Wisconsin in the second round.
Illinois is the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region of the NCAA Tournament, and Michigan is the top seed in the East Region of the NCAA Tournament, giving the Big Ten two No. 1s in the field of 68 teams.
The East Region includes a marquee matchup in the First Four involving two of the biggest names in college basketball: Michigan State and UCLA, both No. 11 seeds, play Thursday. The winner will go on to play No. 6 BYU.
In the other battle of 11 seeds, Wichita State and Drake will square off to see who gets to take on No. 6 USC.
Norfolk State and Appalachian State will play to see who gets to take on No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga, with Mount Saint Mary's and Texas Southern vying to play Michigan.
Louisville, Colorado State, Saint Louis and Mississippi were the first four teams left out and those teams will be on standby to replace any team from a multi-bid league that has to withdraw because of COVID-19 issues.
Louisville was the first left out of the field of 68, but former Cardinals coach Rick Pitino is back in the NCAA Tournament —- this time with Iona.
Pitino was fired by Louisville in 2017 as part of the fallout from the FBI investigation into college basketball. He was hired by Iona College, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference school in New Rochelle, New York, last year.
The former Syracuse assistant Pitino is the fifth coach to lead five teams to the NCAA Tournament, joining Lon Kruger and Tuby Smith.
Iona will play No. 2, Alabama, who won a thrilling match against LSU in the SEC Tournament Sunday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.