The Medic: Postseason college basketball must be handled carefully

Columnist graphic for Pratik Thakur

After witnessing my Kansas City Chiefs get completely outplayed last week, I wanted to shift gears from football and delve back into basketball for this week’s column. 

The biggest sporting event up next this year is the NCAA Basketball Tournament — more commonly known as March Madness. After its coronavirus-induced cancellation last season, audiences can finally watch some of the best collegiate programs in the country duke it out to win the 2021 title. Although, I don’t know if Duke will actually make it this year. 

This season has actually brought a lot of surprises. For starters, no traditional Blue Blood programs were ranked last week, marking the first time that’s happened since 1961 — when JFK was president and “West Side Story” was the most popular movie in theaters. Additionally, our very own Trojans are currently ranked at no. 17 and are sitting on top of the Pac-12. 

However, before we get to the chaotic 68-team tournament, we have to address the conference tournaments that teams will begin next month. Teams will be heading to different locations across the country to play for an automatic bid in the NCAA tournament (conference champions receive automatic bids). 

Even though these tournaments offer another welcome opportunity for fans to watch and cheer on their teams, the travel involved should cause some concerns. For example, USC will be heading to the T-Mobile Center at the Las Vegas Strip to play in the Pac-12 tournament. Likewise, many other teams will be heading to various cities such as Kansas City (Big 12), Greensboro (ACC) and Nashville (SEC). 

Having these conference tournament games can potentially increase the spread of coronavirus right before the national tournament. Therefore, it is crucial that the same level of precautions that will take place in Indianapolis occur at these matches as well because many of these teams will end up traveling to the big stage.

The NCAA does have a strong plan in place to limit travel and ensure safety as much as possible next month. They are making sure that teams that are at-large, meaning they are likely to qualify for the tournament irrespective of their performance at the national tournament, will stay at their conference tournament site until Selection Sunday. Along with those who automatically qualified, they will be in coordination with the NCAA to see how they will travel from their conference tournament site to Indiana for the national tournament. 

These strict protocols work well and can help limit any unnecessary travel. But in this case, the NCAA should enforce bubbles for teams that have around a 50/50 chance to make the tournament.

In terms of testing, teams, more specifically their designated 34-person traveling squad, need to have seven consecutive negative tests starting on Mar. 6 in order for everyone to be able to head to the tournament. In the case that someone tests positive, that individual should be monitored until they are done quarantining. 

This move is also somewhat risky because you can’t ensure that a person has not passed it on to other members of the team since, after all, they are all practicing and playing together. Another dynamic is that unlike football, where some coaches and players will rarely interact with one another, basketball has much smaller personnel and team sizes, so if one person on the team contracts coronavirus, it can spread faster throughout the squad. Additionally, since basketball is played in indoors and smaller arenas, transmission among teams can be higher. 

“The best indoor sport is an outdoor sport,” stated Dr. Cordelia Carter of NYU Lagone Health when asked about the transmission of coronavirus between outdoor and indoor sports in an article by the Washington Post. 

Overall, as we head into March, it will be key to look out for any cases that are popping up at conference tournaments. Conference tournaments are fun, and it’s great to see teams have a shot at their conference championships after being deprived of the opportunity last season, but that may not bode well for the execution of March Madness this year. 

Pratik Thakur is a sophomore writing about sports and its intersection with health policy during the coronavirus pandemic. His column, “The Medic,” runs every other Wednesday.