If a normal day exists at an NCAA Tournament transformed by COVID-19 health protocols, it took the Wildcats a few days before experiencing one.
Upon arrival in downtown Indianapolis on Sunday for their second consecutive appearance in March Madness, the NCAA required the team to pass two COVID-19 tests before it could meet together and move around the hotel. In the meantime, all 34 members of the Wildcats’ traveling party (players, coaches, trainers and staff) were required to quarantine alone in their rooms on the top floor of the Westin hotel.
For some, it was a welcome respite after a busy weekend winning the Southland Conference tournament in Katy, Texas.
“I’ll be quite honest with you. I enjoyed the quarantine. I was exhausted after Katy. I didn’t get to sleep any,” ACU head coach Joe Golding (’99) said. “When I got here and I was told I couldn’t leave my room … it was great. I got to take a nap and get some rest.”
After almost a full day in quarantine, the Wildcats were cleared at about 4 p.m. Monday. By Tuesday, ACU got its first taste of a normal day at the tournament.
Normal, but not ordinary.
Typical days at the tournament involve the same few elements: team activities, meals, free time and, of course, COVID testing. The order of activities is never the same, but that hardly means the days are spontaneous. Everything is scheduled and approved in advance.
With 11 other teams sharing the hotel with the Wildcats – each team has its own floor – movement throughout the hotel must be coordinated to keep elevators and common areas from becoming congested. Teams work with “ambassadors” – NCAA volunteers that help coordinate team schedules, answer questions and help solve problems as they arise – to keep the day running smoothly.
The NCAA transformed the Indiana Convention Center conference halls into practice spaces for all 68 teams, which share 12 temporary courts. The four tournament hotels all connect to the convention center by skyway for easy access.
After quarantine, senior center Kolton Kohl said he was glad to be able to practice again to help find his rhythm. Film sessions supplement daily practices as ACU prepares to face The University of Texas at Austin tonight at Lucas Oil Stadium. Occasional shootarounds help the players stay loose between practices.
The Wildcats eat all their meals in the team’s dedicated meeting space. All teams have the option to bring in food from outside restaurants for one meal a day, but the Wildcats decided to stick with the food available at the hotel. A quick look at some of the menu options reveals they won’t be going hungry. Steak, salmon, tacos and tilapia, just to name a few.
Because everyone eats all their meals in their team rooms, the NCAA converted the hotel restaurant into a COVID-19 testing area. Teams drop by once a day to complete their tests, which they administer themselves.
Not every moment of the schedule is packed, but the term “free time” is a bit of a misnomer. The Wildcats are able to roam the rooms on their hotel floor, but that’s as far as they can go. Video games and movies are popular activities. And because they are students and classes are still going on in Abilene, players often have classwork to keep them busy.
Only a couple activities allow teams to be outdoors, so the Wildcats jumped at one of the few opportunities to breathe some fresh air. The NCAA rented out nearby Victory Field, a minor league baseball stadium, and teams could schedule time to see scenery other than the hotel or convention center.
By Wednesday, it didn’t matter that a chance of rain was in the forecast. They hadn’t been outdoors in three days, and the team was eager to leave the hotel. But the rain held off, and the Wildcats spent late afternoon playing Wiffle ball, dodgeball and tossing around a football.
Then it was time to head back inside. The matchup with the Longhorns was in three days, and there was plenty of work still to do.
Follow the Wildcats during March Madness at acu.edu/champions.