Open and closed: The two worlds of the NCAA tournament in Indianapolis

Open and closed: The two worlds of the NCAA tournament in Indianapolis

The three buses drove south on Interstate 65 at midnight Tuesday, returning from late practice at Purdue’s Mackey Arena ahead of the NCAA tournament that opens there on Thursday. A total of 34 people were present.

They were surrounded by five state troop cars, their lights buzzing. The three in front took turns racing ahead and blocking the ramps. The caravan of buses was in the middle of three lanes, and the two soldiers in the background flanked them in adjacent lanes to prevent anyone from passing by – as if someone was in a car flipped up on a 40-degree night Windows drives 100 km / h, this could somehow transmit COVID-19 to the passengers on the buses.

Safety first.

The buses arrived at the downtown Marriott Hotel and unloaded their cargo with players, coaches and staff. They were escorted to their individual rooms on their own floor, where they must remain until their next exercise (and electronic surveillance wristbands and security guards at the entrances will notify officers if they fail to do so).

“The only thing we did is stay in our room every six hours and wipe our nose. That’s what it feels like,” said Roy Williams, North Carolina coach, of his 36th NCAA tournament. “It was difficult folks. It wasn’t nearly as fun. … It wasn’t exactly Maui. “

It’s also not exactly Maui at Tiki Bob’s Cantina, five blocks away on Meridian Street. There is no sand or waves, but there are people, many of them, St. Patrick’s Day revelers in floppy green hats drinking green beer without wearing green masks.

There is a line as early as 6pm to get into Kilroy’s Bar N ‘Grill. The terrace at District Tap is full. Taps & Dolls is full too. Indianapolis police dispatched two horse trailers to ensure everyone’s behavior once the Indiana Pacers game is over and more people gather on the Georgia Street boardwalk.

“Welcome basketball fans,” beckon signs in the windows.

Most teams stay on Maryland Street at the Marriott or the even larger JW Marriott next door. A huge bracket with all 68 teams extends across the 34-story, curved front of the JW Marriott. “Indiana, where champions are crowned,” it says at the top.

It was a surreal scene on Wednesday night: the players confined themselves to their rooms, looking through the huge bracket and staring at the St. Paddy’s Day celebrations in a city where restaurants and bars with a 75 percent capacity are open, music and clinking glasses Interrupted every few minutes by the sirens of another police escort from a trailer with three buses, each carrying no more than 12 people.

March strangeness.

A line in front of Kilroy’s Bar N ‘Grill in downtown Indianapolis on St. Patrick’s Day.

(Mark Zeigler)

The two worlds collide on Thursday, when the games begin in the three-week tournament and fans can reach up to 25 percent of the capacity of an arena. Players are tested daily and eat in their rooms. They wear contact tracing bracelets and cannot leave their hotel floors. Every body else? Welcome basketball fans.

“Our positivity rate in Indiana is less than 3 percent locally,” said Dan Gavitt, senior vice president of basketball for the NCAA, on Wednesday. “We made a very informed and careful decision, which, in consultation with the local health authorities, took weeks as to whether or not we should have fans present. If things hadn’t improved a lot in our nation and locally in the past few weeks and months, I don’t know we’d have fans.

“But the opportunity was what our members wanted and what the local health authorities were comfortable with. Ultimately, it’s up to the fans whether they want to participate or not. “

As Indiana eased restrictions, the NCAA did the opposite with an age group that is statistically among the least susceptible to the virus. The sixth-occupied state of San Diego, which opens Friday against Syracuse at the Hinkle Fieldhouse, has operated all season long in one of the most cordoned-off states under some of the strictest COVID-19 protocols and has not had a positive case since September. This is a whole other level.

The teams had to pass negative tests for seven days before their maximum travel group of 34 people could split up on a 737 charter jet with 150 seats for the flight to Indianapolis. They were immediately tested and given red bracelets, indicating that they had not been evacuated and were confined to their floors.

The next day, they were tested again, given blue bracelets, and sent back to their rooms.

It wasn’t until these tests were negative that they were given official ID and permission to take the Skywalk to the convention center across the street for practice. However, they must wear a domino-sized tracking chip that will monitor their movements and flash red when they are within 6 feet of someone else. If someone tests positive, the chips will determine who is in close proximity and is a candidate for contact tracing quarantine.

Gavitt said Wednesday that 6,900 tests have been done so far and only seven are positive.

One of them was believed to be from the group of six umpires who arrived in Indianapolis on Sunday night and – their version – said they were allowed to have dinner at a local steakhouse because their hotel rooms weren’t ready. If one tested positive, the other five were sent home too, although at least two claim they had the virus earlier in the season.

It was revealed that a celebrity trainer who is particularly fond of restaurants made a reservation at St. Elmo, another of Indy’s steakhouses, only to learn from NCAA staff that he could not leave the hotel. He already had the virus and vaccine, he said. Does not matter. I still can’t go

The NCAA offers individually packaged meals in the hotels that are outside the rooms. There have been growing complaints about the culinary prize and some teams have opted for online grocery deliveries to be received by a tournament “ambassador” assigned to each team. One team placed an order with Pizza Hut, an NCAA sponsor, the night before, only to learn the following afternoon that they had run out of pizzas.

“A tremendous number of deliveries,” said Gavitt. “We know this is also true because the rubbish that accumulated on each floor of the team was enormous on all take-out packages.”

Some deliveries, he said, didn’t arrive until 3 a.m. Some are for clothing (an SDSU official said he sent shirts for dry cleaning and they were returned in the same bag, still dirty). One from Amazon was for wiffle ball gear.

Gavitt was asked if they would consider relaxing the protocols. He said no.

“We’re holding a tournament to determine a national champion,” said Gavitt. “I am very confident that every student athlete in this competition and every coach would like to have the opportunity to play their game and find out who is the better team on the field. The only way to take advantage of this opportunity is to create an environment where everyone is tested (where) the risk mitigation is in place, so you don’t have a positive test or contact tracing that could turn off an entire team like us have seen it regularly the regular season.

“So I have no reservations about the plan to give us the best opportunity to play games successfully.”

There’s another reason: $ 1 billion. That’s the revenue from ticket sales and (mostly) the television contract, which makes up about 85 percent of the NCAA’s annual revenue and is distributed to schools every spring. Last year after the tournament was canceled, the payout was only $ 225 million.

Players must be in the “controlled environment” of four hotels and take advantage of the skywalks connected to the convention center, which has a temporary practice area and weight room, while the St. Paddy’s Day celebrations take place at Tiki Bob’s. Parents can sit on the rafters and watch their sons play, but not hug them or take them to dinner. SDSU trainer Brian Dutcher talks about washing in his sink.

“It kind of makes it a mental game,” said Aztec senior Matt Mitchell. “It challenges you to stick to it mentally and not to falter. When a man mentally falters, it can be to the detriment of the entire team. Staying together at this time, in this bubble, in this tournament, could be the greatest thing for the teams. “

The Aztecs were finally able to go outside for the first time since arriving on Sunday afternoon, given an hour on Wednesday across the street in Victory Field, home of the Indianapolis Triple-A baseball team. They played badminton, threw a soccer ball, kicked a soccer ball, just swallowed in the fresh air.

Later that day, they split into three buses and had their police escorted them for the six-mile drive to Hinkle Fieldhouse to practice. Dutcher is usually in a rush to get ready and get back to the hotel. On Wednesday, he postponed training as long as possible, knowing that training will be back at the convention center on Thursday, and knew that 20-year-old college students are likely not interested in solving the 500-piece puzzle or reading the 352-page book that came in their NCAA goodie bags.

“We try not to leave them in their rooms all day,” said Dutcher, “to give them an activity where they feel like they can accomplish something during the day when they can.” I am not leaving the hotel.

“I said to the team, ‘Maybe the best team won’t win this event. Maybe it’s the team that can best handle quarantine and bubbles. ‘“