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The Duke University men’s basketball team was one of the weaker teams at their conference. A freshman had decided in February to sign up for the NBA draft and not play for the rest of the season. With a record of 13-11, the Blue Devils’ prospects of winning the NCAA tournament were among their worst in decades.
But by the hours after a win over Louisville on Wednesday night, Duke had avoided this college basketball season’s battle: a positive coronavirus test by a player or a coach. Then a player tested positive and Duke’s season ended on Thursday lunchtime.
“This season has been a challenge for every team across the country and as we’ve seen time and time again, this global pandemic is very cruel and not over yet,” said Mike Krzyzewski, Duke’s coach, in a statement after the team was forced off Atlantic Coast Conference tournament withdraw. “As many protective measures as we’ve put in place, no one is immune to this terrible virus.”
The decisions of the day, emerging from the ACC’s medical protocols regulating positive testing and mandatory quarantines, resulted in Duke, a five-time national champion, missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995. (The 2020 tournament was canceled a year ago on the Friday before the brace was set and when Duke was 25-6 because of the virus.)
While this Duke team was not a terrible force like so many of its predecessors, its mandatory exit from basketball’s postseason was a warning throughout the sport of its greatest moment that the next few weeks could quickly go wrong.
The NCAA plans to welcome 68 teams to Indianapolis for the men’s competition starting next week and 64 to San Antonio for the women’s competition due to start March 21. Fans will be welcome to many games, with players, coaches, and others in specific roles being tested for the virus on a daily basis. The NCAA didn’t create a severely constrained environment like the NBA and other pro leagues used last season.
The health of the teams is so fluid that the bracket, which will be released for the men’s tournament on Sunday evening, does not freeze until 6 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday. Until then, replacement teams will be on standby to fly to Indiana if any team in the group is facing its own coronavirus crisis.
And, as Duke saw on Wednesday and Thursday, these crises can invade the most guarded, funded, and well-monitored programs.
“Every coach in America is concerned about how fragile what we’re doing is,” said Leonard Hamilton, the Florida state coach who was scheduled to play against the Blue Devils on Thursday and who automatically advanced in the ACC tournament after Duke’s retirement . “You really have to stay in your own little team bubble, where you go, where you eat, where you sleep, who your friends are, who you come in contact with, what sacrifices you have to make.”
He added, “You can be the most disciplined person in the world, but by chance you come across something you don’t even know where it came from. This is what we all face. “
According to the protocols of the ACC, basketball is classified as a high risk sport and the players are tested regularly. But one of the biggest roster management problems in any sport over the past year has been contact tracing, which can affect most or all of the team in a short amount of time. In fact, Duke sporting director Kevin White suggested Thursday that all Duke players had been quarantined. In December, the Duke women’s team ended its season prematurely, citing safety concerns related to the pandemic.
NCAA officials hope the systems they have put in place in Indiana and Texas will allow tournaments, which are critical to the association’s finances, to proceed without breakouts. But they have also set a guideline for when a team must leave the individual eliminations: If a school does not have at least five eligible, healthy players.
Duke’s experience, including requiring players to be quarantined for at least seven days, has again shown how quickly a squad can split up. But Thursday was also a reminder that one team’s problems don’t necessarily affect another team’s chances of continuing to play.
Louisville, which beat Duke between 70 and 56 on Wednesday night, was quick to say Thursday that it didn’t believe any of its players would be affected by the contact tracing, an assessment largely borne by the digital tracking devices that the players are using Use during games and games will also wear during team activities at national tournaments.
“Our group is being tested daily and is on the way to completing the required consecutive days of negative tests to enter the NCAA tournament,” said Louisville.
But despite the optimism the sport has given the Louisville-style chances of advancing anyway, there’s virtually no one who believes March and early April will prove to be easy.
Mitch Barnhart, Kentucky’s sports director and chairman of the NCAA tournament selection committee, said this week before Duke’s retirement: “We’ve come this far, so now we’re hoping to cross the finish line three weeks from Monday.”
Adam Zagoria contributed to the coverage.