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March Madness amid COVID: How the 2021 NCAA men's basketball tournament is different

Henry Bushnell
·9-min read

When the NCAA men's basketball tournament bracket was released on Sunday night, March Madness, for a fleeting moment, felt normal.

But alas, it won't be. This year's tournament, amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, will be different than any other before it. From an adjusted schedule to a one-state bubble, here's what you need to know about March Madness in 2021.

When do March Madness games begin?

Whereas in a typical year the First Four would start Tuesday, with the tourney kicking into full gear on Thursday, this year's First Four games are all on Thursday, with the first round beginning on Friday. The entire first weekend has essentially been pushed back a day.

Here are the dates for the full tournament:

  • First Four: Thursday, March 18

  • First round: Friday, March 19 and Saturday, March 20

  • Second round: Sunday, March 21 and Monday, March 22

  • Sweet 16: Saturday, March 27 and Sunday, March 28

  • Elite Eight: Monday, March 29 and Tuesday, March 30

  • Final Four: Saturday, April 3

  • Championship game: Monday, April 5

When and how can I watch games?

Game times have also been tweaked, but it's nothing revolutionary. The First Four tips at 5 p.m. ET on Thursday. Games begin at noon on CBS each of the four days (Friday-Monday) after that.

As usual, the four TV channels to find are CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV. March Madness Live and the NCAA March Madness Live app are your online streaming homes on desktop and mobile, respectively.

The full day-by-day NCAA tournament TV schedule can be found further down this page. The full first-round schedule, with TV times and all, is right here:

First-round TV schedule

(All times ET. Numbers in parentheses are seeds. First-round betting lines can be found here.)

Thursday, March 18, First Four:

  • 5:10 p.m.: Texas Southern (16) vs. Mount St. Mary's (16), TruTV

  • 6:27 p.m.: Drake (11) vs. Wichita State (11), TBS

  • 8:40 p.m.: Appalachian State (16) vs. Norfolk State (16), TruTV

  • 9:57 p.m.: UCLA (11) vs. Michigan State (11), TBS

Friday, March 19:

  • 12:15 p.m.: Virginia Tech (10) vs. Florida (7), CBS

  • 12:45 p.m.: Colgate (14) vs. Arkansas (3), truTV

  • 1:15 p.m.: Drexel (16) vs. Illinois (1), TBS

  • 1:45 p.m.: Utah State (11) vs. Texas Tech (6), TNT

  • 3 p.m.: Oral Roberts (15) vs. Ohio State (2), CBS

  • 3:30 p.m.: Hartford (16) vs. Baylor (1), truTV

  • 4 p.m.: Georgia Tech (9) vs. Loyola (8), TBS

  • 4:30 p.m.: Oregon State (12) vs. Tennessee (5), TNT

  • 6:25 p.m.: Liberty (13) vs. Oklahoma State (4), TBS

  • 7:10 p.m.: Wisconsin (9) vs. North Carolina (8), CBS

  • 7:15 p.m.: Cleveland State (15) vs. Houston (2), truTV

  • 7:25 p.m.: North Texas (13) vs. Purdue (4), TNT

  • 9:20 p.m.: Rutgers (10) vs. Clemson (7), TBS

  • 9:40 p.m.: Syracuse (11) vs. San Diego State (6), CBS

  • 9:50 p.m.: Morehead State (14) vs. West Virginia (3), truTV

  • 9:57 p.m.: Winthrop (12) vs. Villanova (5), TNT

Saturday, March 20:

  • 12:15 p.m.: Georgetown (12) vs. Colorado (5), CBS

  • 12:45 p.m.: UNC Greensboro (13) vs. Florida State (4), truTV

  • 1:15 p.m.: Eastern Washington (14) vs. Kansas (3), TBS

  • 1:45 p.m.: St. Bonaventure (9) vs. LSU (8), TNT

  • 3 p.m.: Play-in winner (16) vs. Michigan (1), CBS

  • 3:30 p.m.: UC Santa Barbara (12) vs. Creighton (5), truTV

  • 4 p.m.: Iona (15) vs. Alabama (2), TBS

  • 4:30 p.m.: Play-in winner (11) vs. USC (6), TNT

  • 6:25 p.m.: Grand Canyon (15) vs. Iowa (2), TBS

  • 7:10 p.m.: Maryland (10) vs. UConn (7), CBS

  • 7:15 p.m.: Ohio (13) vs. Virginia (4), truTV

  • 7:25 p.m.: Missouri (9) vs. Oklahoma (8), TNT

  • 9:20 p.m.: Play-in winner (16) vs. Gonzaga (1), TBS

  • 9:40 p.m.: Play-in winner (11) vs. BYU, CBS

  • 9:50 p.m.: Abilene Christian (14) vs. Texas (3), truTV

  • 9:57 p.m.: VCU (10) vs. Oregon (7), TNT

Where will games happen?

Rather than have teams travel across the country, the NCAA is bringing all 68 to the Indianapolis area. They'll play games at four sites in Indy ...

  • Lucas Oil Stadium, the 70,000-seat home of the NFL's Indianapolis Colts, and of the 2021 men's Final Four. (It'll house two separate courts in early rounds, though games on those two courts won't be played simultaneously.)

  • Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the NBA's Indiana Pacers.

  • Hinkle Fieldhouse, home of Butler University.

  • Indiana Farmers Coliseum, home of IUPUI and a variety of other Indianapolis events.

... and two other sites about an hour away:

  • Assembly Hall, in Bloomington, home of Indiana University.

  • Mackey Arena, in West Lafayette, home of Purdue.

The First Four will be held at Mackey Arena and Assembly Hall – both of which will also host first-round games, along with the four other venues.

The four Indy sites will host the second round.

Bankers Life and Hinkle will host the Sweet 16.

Everything from the Elite Eight onward will be at Lucas Oil.

Will fans be allowed?

The NCAA announced in February that arenas will open at 25% capacity for the men's tournament. So yes, thousands of fans will be allowed at March Madness games. They'll be physically distanced and masked.

The 25% limit — which will include essential staffers and family members of players and coaches — means that some 17,000 fans could be at Lucas Oil for the Final Four. Other arenas could host a few thousand.

The one exception is Assembly Hall. Local health officials and the University of Indiana have said that they will welcome no more than 500 spectators per game, including some "vaccinated medical personnel and first responders."

What happens if a player tests positive for COVID-19?

If a player tests positive, first of all, he'll receive a second confirmatory test (and potentially a third) to ensure it isn't a false positive. (The NCAA has said that "a same-day protocol will be in place for potential false positive tests," to minimize the chances that a player misses a game due to one.)

If the positive is confirmed, the player will go into isolation, and will likely miss the rest of the tournament — unless his team advances deep into it. He could return 10 days after his initial positive test (if asymptomatic) or 10 days after his last symptoms, per the NCAA's CDC-based guidelines.

Already, Virginia and Kansas have had players test positive the week before the tournament. Virginia head coach Tony Bennett confirmed that his COVID-positive player would miss the first and second rounds, but left open the possibility that the player could return on the second weekend.

The trickier question is: What happens to the rest of his team?

Could COVID-19 positives force a March Madness shutdown?

If anybody involved in March Madness tests positive, contact tracing will begin immediately. All Tier 1 individuals — players, coaches, etc. — will wear tracking devices at almost all times to aid health authorities with the process.

That process would determine how widespread a disruption might be. If the infected person only has one or two close contacts, then those close contacts would be quarantined and unavailable for at least seven days, according to guidelines; but team activities, including games, could continue.

If close contact has occurred throughout a team's travel party, though, then a shutdown might be necessary. Bennett said a "majority" of Virginia's players are currently quarantined, unable to practice; and the team won't travel to Indianapolis until Friday, one day before its first game.

If a team shuts down, and is unable to compete in a scheduled game, it would forfeit. (There's very little room for schedule adjustments.) "Its opponent would advance to the next round via the no-contest rule," the NCAA has said.

The NCAA has not, however, publicly outlined specific criteria for when a shutdown is necessary. As long as a team has five players available, it will be allowed to play.

And it's clear that an outbreak within one team won't derail the entire tournament.

Would the NCAA replace teams who have COVID outbreaks?

The NCAA has outlined its team replacement process.

In short, teams can be replaced — either by the next-best team from their conference, or by the next-best team at-large — up until Tuesday, March 16, at 6 p.m. ET. If, for example, Virginia has to withdraw on Tuesday morning, the first bubble team left out of the field – Louisville – would slot in as a No. 4 seed in the Cavs' place.

Once the bracket is set, though, there'll be no re-bracketing. And once the tournament begins, there'll be no team-replacing. Yahoo Sports' Sam Cooper has an excellent, succinct breakdown of all the contingencies here.

And the schedule – the rest of which is below – will not be altered.

Second-round TV schedule

Sunday, March 21, and Monday, March 22, follow identical schedules — though with slightly different TV assignments — and are similar to what we used to get for the second round on Saturday and Sunday.

  • Noon: CBS

  • 2:30 p.m.: CBS

  • 5 p.m.: CBS Sunday/TBS Monday

  • 6 p.m.: TNT

  • 7 p.m.: TBS Sunday/CBS Monday

  • 7:30 p.m.: truTV Sunday/TBS Monday

  • 8:30 p.m.: TNT

  • 9:30 p.m.: TBS Sunday/CBS Monday

Sweet 16 TV schedule

Sweet 16 games, now on weekends rather than weekday nights, will be spread throughout the day, each with its own time slot.

Saturday, March 27:

  • 2:30 p.m.: CBS

  • 5 p.m.: CBS

  • 7:15 p.m.: TBS

  • 9:45 p.m.: TBS

Sunday, March 28:

  • 2 p.m.: CBS

  • 4:45 p.m.: CBS

  • 7 p.m.: TBS

  • 9:30 p.m.: TBS

Elite Eight TV schedule

Monday, March 29:

  • 7 p.m.: CBS

  • 9:30 p.m.: CBS

Tuesday, March 30:

  • 7 p.m.: TBS

  • 9:30 p.m.: TBS

Final Four TV schedule

The Final Four will still be on the first Saturday in April, with the title game the following Monday.

Saturday, April 3:

  • 5 p.m.: CBS

  • 8:30 p.m.: CBS

National championship

Monday, April 5:

  • 9 p.m.: CBS

How can I fill out my bracket?

By signing up for Yahoo Tourney Pick 'Em. It's free to play, and $50,000 is on the line. Brackets can be filled out anytime up until Friday's first game.

Anything else I need to know?

Yahoo Sports will have full coverage of the tournament throughout the next month. Some Selection Sunday links are below.

In the meantime, you can also get up to speed on the women's tourney, which will be easier to watch and follow this year than ever before.

More NCAA tournament on Yahoo Sports:

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - MARCH 20:  A general view of a 'March Madness' logo is seen during practice before the First Round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 20, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
March Madness is back after a one-year, COVID-infected hiatus. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)