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Big Dance during pandemic requires extra choreography

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Freshman forward Jameson Richardson and junior forward Clay Gayman battle for position on the Wildcats’ practice court in the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis.
Freshman forward Jameson Richardson and junior forward Clay Gayman battle for position on the Wildcats’ practice court in the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis.

Photos by Glenn Losoya

In a year dominated by the pandemic, March Madness doesn’t only refer to the exciting on-court action of the NCAA Tournament. It also represents the immense coordination and safety considerations in place to make this year’s Big Dance a reality.

Everything is done with health protocols in mind. That starts with hosting the entire men’s tournament in Indiana to minimize cross-country travel.

In 2019, the NCAA Tournament whittled its field from 68 teams to its Sweet 16 in games spread over six days in nine cities across the country. This year, the men’s tournament will do the same in five days and six arenas, all within 70 miles of downtown Indianapolis.

But being so close together creates a new set of issues.

To minimize local travel, all 68 teams are staying in four downtown Indianapolis hotels that use a series of skywalks to connect to the Indiana Convention Center, where every team practices and works out throughout the week. 

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Senior guard Reggie Miller and his ACU teammates stretch before a workout session in Indianapolis.
Senior guard Reggie Miller and his ACU teammates stretch before a workout session in Indianapolis.

Each team has an entire floor of a hotel to itself – ACU occupies the top floor of the 15-story Westin – and no one shares a room. All meals are eaten in designated team rooms.

If it sounds like the Wildcats have little reason to go outside, that’s by NCAA design. As of midday Wednesday, they hadn’t been outdoors since arriving Sunday afternoon. So don’t bother asking what they think of Indianapolis.

“I haven’t seen much of the city,” ACU head coach Joe Golding (’99) said. “We’ve been in the hotel. I think the Westin’s a great hotel. We’ve spent pretty much every minute here.”

If they’re not in the hotel, the Wildcats are across the street at the convention center. The NCAA brought in six weight room stations and 12 temporary practice courts and converted halls into workout spaces for the teams. ACU can schedule time in the practice areas once a day.

The temporary courts are nothing new for the Wildcats.

“They kind of remind us of the Teague Center,” Golding said, referring to the Wildcats’ temporary site for home games this season with Moody Coliseum under renovation. “It looks very similar to that, just without the stands. So, I think our guys are kind of used to that environment.”

Players are free to roam from room to room on their hotel floor. But moving throughout the hotel and convention center requires coordination. Team movement must be scheduled to prevent congestion at the elevators. The Wildcats might see another team as they come and go from areas, but rarely do they interact.

And then there’s the COVID-19 testing.

Teams had to begin daily tests a week before arriving in Indianapolis, which the Wildcats started even before they punched their ticket to the Big Dance. Teams continue to test daily this week.

In case coronavirus contact tracing becomes necessary, players, coaches and staff must wear 1-by-2-inch tracking devices during games and workouts that record how close they come to others and for how long.

If the Wildcats make it through all the testing, regulations and relative confinement, there’s still at least one game to be played – against The University of Texas at Austin at 8:50 p.m. CDT Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium, which, not coincidentally, also connects to the convention center. But, especially this year, March Madness provides an experience unlike any other.

“Usually at these tournaments, you’re there for two days and then if you lose, you’re right back home,” Golding said. “We’re getting the opportunity to stay here a week and experience this. I hope our guys are getting to enjoy the full experience.”

Follow the Wildcats during March Madness at acu.edu/champions.

 
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