Due to challenges associated with the coronavirus pandemic, the entire 2021 NCAA men's basketball tournament will be played in one location, the NCAA announced Monday.
The NCAA said it is in talks with Indianapolis and the surrounding metro area to be that location.
The decision comes after NCAA officials met to consider a variety of contingency plans. The move means that 13 sites across the country will no longer host a preliminary round of the NCAA tournament.
"My committee colleagues and I did not come lightly to the difficult decision to relocate the preliminary rounds of the 2021 tournament, as we understand the disappointment 13 communities will feel to miss out on being part of March Madness next year," said Mitch Barnhart, chair of the Division I Men's Basketball Committee and University of Kentucky athletic director, in the announcement. "With the University of Kentucky slated to host first- and second-round games in March, this is something that directly impacts our school and community, so we certainly share in their regret. The committee and staff deeply appreciate the efforts of all the host institutions and conferences, and we look forward to bringing the tournament back to the impacted sites in future years."
The NCAA's announcement said that sending teams across the country could create logistical challenges while also posing a risk of spreading COVID-19. It has been clear in recent months that the NCAA would do whatever it felt necessary to host the NCAA tournament. Last year's cancellation cost the NCAA $375 million.
"We have learned so much from monitoring other successful sporting events in the last several months, and it became clear it's not feasible to manage this complex championship in so many different states with the challenges presented by the pandemic," said Dan Gavitt, NCAA senior vice president of basketball, in the announcement. "However, we are developing a solid plan to present a safe, responsible and fantastic March Madness tournament unlike any other we've experienced."
While the NCAA says it has started talks with local officials in Indianapolis, an official with the health department in Marion County, where the event could be held, said it was not aware of the NCAA's plan.
"The Marion County Public Health Department has not received any details regarding this proposed initiative announced by the NCAA, and does not have any further response at this time," Curt Brantingham, media and public information coordinator for the county's health department, said in a statement sent to ESPN.
On a Monday afternoon conference call, Gavitt said the NCAA is calling the one-city idea a "controlled environment" not a "bubble." The NBA's bubble cost the league more than $150 million. The NCAA tournament will require multiple gyms, hotels, practice facilities and other venues, Gavitt said.
Although it's not a bubble, anyone who enters will be required to stay until eliminated or deciding to exit. That means the teams that make a run to the Final Four will have to stay in one location for a month.
"It will be a very controlled environment," Gavitt said. "It'll be different; it'll be historic; and it'll be hopefully something we all treasure and experience just once, hopefully not ever again."
Gavitt said that talks with Indianapolis officials are preliminary but that there are other cities -- cities he didn't name -- the NCAA will engage if plans in Indianapolis don't materialize. An official announcement about a final location is expected to come before Jan. 1.
The field is expected to remain at 68 teams, but Gavitt added that officials will discuss the possibility of replacement teams -- if a team can't continue in the tournament because of an outbreak -- in the coming weeks.
Appearing on the Packer and Durham Show on the ACC Network on Tuesday, Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner said a centralized location for the NCAA tournament is the only thing that makes sense. He also said he wouldn't be surprised if the NCAA cut the field in half or more just to ensure the tournament gets played.
Although Monday's development highlighted the specifics of the season's finale, questions about its start remain. Multiple coaches have expressed concerns about the upcoming season, set to commence next week on Nov. 25, as the virus spreads around the country.
On Saturday, Iona's Rick Pitino tweeted that college basketball should move to a league-only schedule and push the NCAA tournament back to May to "save the season." But Gavitt said the NCAA will maintain its Nov. 25 start and has no plans to move the tournament, either. Moving the start date of the season wouldn't alleviate any "disruption," he said.
"The plan right now is to conduct the tournament in March and April as scheduled," he said.