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College basketball: Men's, women's teams prepare for downsized tourneys

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College basketball: Men's, women's teams prepare for downsized tourneys
The Loyola (Chicago) men's basketball team clinched a spot in the 2021 NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament with a win over Drake in the Missouri Valley championship game Sunday at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis. File Photo by Doug Devoe/UPI | License Photo

MIAMI, March 12 (UPI) -- Thousands of men's and women's college basketball stars tip-off tournaments next week as part of a somewhat traditional March Madness. But this year's tournaments, which follow a 2020 hiatus, remain unprecedented.

The majority of men's tournament play will occur in Indianapolis. Women's tournament games mostly will be played in San Antonio, Texas. The tournaments follow turbulent 2020-21 basketball seasons, which have been interrupted frequently by coronavirus pandemic concerns,

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"There was a time when we didn't know how many games we would get in, period," UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma told reporters Monday. "We weren't sure if we'd have a regular-season champion. We managed to get through it."

Typical NCAA tournaments are set in dozens of cities at the start of play, and then move to more centralized venues as the tournament fields decrease by 50% through each round.

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In a normal year, fans fill large arenas, teams travel from coast to coast and millions of athletes, staff members and spectators stay in hotel rooms around the country for the games.

That changed last March when COVID-19 effectively halted all major sports and caused tournaments to be canceled. The men's tournament was canceled for the first time in more than eight decades, while the women's tournament had been played annually since 1982.

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NCAA officials and schools have taken a different approach to plan this pared-down version of March Madness. The efforts were made to limit exposure to COVID-19 and fend off potential outbreaks.

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Still 68 men's teams

The men's tournament still features its standard 68-team field. Play starts March 18 and ends with the national championship game April 5. The tournament begins a few days later than it has previoulsy, but still features the standard three weeks of play.

The women's tournament features its standard 64-team field. Women's play starts March 21 and ends April 4, with the start delayed from its usual beginning date.

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One major difference in this year's tournament could be the role potential forfeits play. Leading up to the tournament, hundreds of regular-season college basketball games were postponed or canceled due to COVID-19 outbreaks, quarantines and contact tracing. Some programs canceled seasons because of the disruption.

Tournament officials decided this year to use replacement teams should outbreaks occur, but they will not alter the tournament schedules once the fields are set.

Replacement teams only can be introduced within 48 hours after the tournament fields are announced. Those teams must be among the best teams that had been considered for an at-large bid.

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If a team does not have five players available to play in a game, or after the 48-hour period ends, it must forfeit the game, and its opponent will advance with a "no-contest" designation.

Fans will be allowed to attend games at the men's and women's tournaments, but the crowds will be limited.

Attendance for men's games will be capped at 25% of venue capacity. No fans will be allowed to attend the first- and second-round of the women's tournament, but they can attend later rounds at the 64,000-seat Alamodome, which will allow 17% capacity.

"It has been a disappointing year out west," Gonzaga men's basketball coach Mark Few told reporters Tuesday. "It's a shame that more of our fans haven't seen this team play, but that's just the way it is.

"I'm proud of how our guys have worked their way through it."

Millions of viewers are still likely to watch the basketball action on TV, with competitive games airing nationally throughout March. Teams now are competing in a similar format in their respective conference tournaments, ahead of the nationally broadcast NCAA tournament final field.

Selection shows, favorites

Selection Sunday: The popular Division I men's basketball tournament reveal show airs at 6 p.m. EDT Sunday on CBS. The women's tournament selection show airs at 7 p.m. EDT Monday on ESPN.

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The men's bracket features 31 teams that receive automatic entries because they won their respective conference tournaments. An additional 37 teams will gain entry as at-large bids, which are made by a selection committee.

The women's bracket features 31 conference tournament winners, with the remainder of its field chosen as at-large bids.

Gonzaga is the betting favorite to win the men's tournament. The Bulldogs, ranked No. 1 in the coaches poll, achieved a perfect 26-0 this season and won the West Coast tournament. They likely will be the No. 1 overall seed in the men's bracket.

Baylor, Michigan, Illinois, Houston and Ohio State are among the other favorites to win the men's tournament.

Traditional women's basketball powerhouse UConn is favored to win the 2021 women's tournament. The Huskies (24-1) finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the coaches poll and claimed Big East tournament title with a 34-point win over Marquette in the final.

Stanford, North Carolina State, Texas A&M and South Carolina are among the other top women's teams who are expected to compete for a championship this month.

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