A long overdue NCAA tournament

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Gonzaga led by Jalen Suggs, Corey Kispert and Drew Timme are looking to bring home the first national championship in school history.

Nick Allen, Sports Writer

A little over a year ago, on March 12, the 2020 NCAA tournament was officially canceled due to the fear of the COVID-19 pandemic. Several conferences scratched their tournaments, and not long after, the NCAA announced that March Madness would be canceled. Fast forward 12 months later and the time is here once again. We didn’t know if or how we would do it but March Madness has arrived. Players, coaches, and team staff members sacrificed a lot just to get to this point. They sacrificed time away from family, time away from friends, and time away from college fun, just to make sure they would not test positive or come into contact with COVID-19.
The last time we saw an NCAA tournament game played was April 8, 2019 when Virginia beat Texas Tech, 85-77, in the national championship game.
During a normal year, March Madness takes place in scattered cities such as Kansas City, Raleigh, Louisville, etc. But this tournament, all 67 games will take place entirely in Indianapolis, Indiana to control the spread of COVID-19 and the NCAA will only allow 25% fan capacity at each venue.
The NCAA announced that prior to arriving in Indianapolis, all players and staff must test negative for seven consecutive days. When they arrive at the tournament site, players and staff are put into immediate quarantine, and will undergo daily COVID-19 testing. Players must stay in quarantine, in their rooms all day, except during scheduled practice time. Players are allowed to go into their teammates rooms.
If a team is exposed to COVID-19, they will be forced to withdraw from the tournament and the opposing team advances to the next round. There have already been a couple of instances where COVID-19 has come into play. Duke, Virginia, and Kansas all had players test positive and were forced to withdraw from their conference tournaments.
This NCAA tournament is also like no other because “blue bloods” Duke and Kentucky both failed to make the tournament. Kentucky finished with a 9-16 overall record, the first time Kentucky finished with a record under .500 since 1988-89 and Duke finished with a 13-11 record, the first time the Blue Devils were not selected to participate in the NCAA tournament since 1994-95. Year in and year out, Kentucky and Duke as well as UNC are competing for a National Championship, but not this year.
Both Kentucky and Duke have had their fair share of issues, dealing with injuries, opt-outs, and most importantly lack of experience. They both came into this season with the top three recruiting classes, but the limited practice time spent with their teammates due to COVID-19 had a major effect on them.
In a normal season, teams would build their “chemistry” practicing all off-season long from spring to fall. That strengthens trust, relationships and having a feel of each player’s style of play. But this past off-season, teams had limited practice time, which made it difficult to build bonds with each other, and it was even worse for teams with a majority of freshmen and sophomores. “With the pandemic, a lot of these teams that have freshman and young guys, I found it with mine, you’re about 4-5 months behind in development with those guys because you didn’t get time with them. You’re seeing some older veteran teams, some older players, that allows the parity, the teams that are older and had some experience, this year they are rising to the top,” Loyola Chicago coach Porter Moser said on First Take.
That was clear and obvious with Kentucky when they started the season with a 1-6 record. But to make matters worse, midway through the season, Kentucky lost five-star recruit and arguably the best player on the team, Terrence Clarke to a leg injury, further derailing their team.
With Kentucky and Duke not in the NCAA tournament this season, teams like Gonzaga, Baylor and Illinois are looking to win their first national championship in their school’s history.
Gonzaga is the clear-cut favorite to cut down the nets in Indianapolis after finishing the regular season with a 26-0 record. The Gonzaga Bulldogs are looking to become the first undefeated national champion since the Indiana Hosiers in 1975-76. The Bulldogs high powered offense led by potential top NBA draft pick Jalen Suggs, national player of the year candidates Drew Timme and Corey Kispert, and potential first-round pick Joel Ayayi, dominated Kansas, Iowa, West Virginia and Virginia as well as the West Coast Conference in the regular season.
Gonzaga has yet to win a national championship, however, the Bulldogs did advance to the national championship game in 2016-17 in a losing effort to North Carolina. But this might finally be the year they cut down the nets because they have all the weapons they need to win, including one of the best coaches in the game, Mark Few.
A team that has the potential to beat out Gonzaga for the championship spot is the Baylor Bears. Baylor finished the regular season with a 22-2 record after starting the season 18-0. Baylor looked like the best team in college basketball before COVID-19 protocols forced Baylor to shut down for two weeks. Once they returned, the Bears did not look the same, losing two of their next seven games.
Baylor is led by the best backcourt in the country that includes potential national player of the year Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and potential first round pick Davion Mitchell. All three are averaging at least 14 points per game, shooting 47 percent from the court, and 39 percent from beyond the arc. This trio can shoot the lights out and on the other end force turnovers.
Under head coach Scott Drew, who has completely transformed this program around when he arrived in Waco in 2003, Baylor hasn’t finished better than the elite eight, but they can definitely change that this season and cut down the nets.
The Final Four will take place on Saturday, April 3 and the national championship game will take place on Monday, April 5.
This has been a long overdue NCAA tournament that will look almost entirely different from previous tournaments, but fans are just glad an NCAA tournament will take place in these uncertain circumstances.