Periodically, there have been suggestions the NCAA Men’s Final Four designate Indianapolis as a permanent home.
Monday, the NCAA took a different type of step that will make the place where basketball is the most popular home for a month.
The governing body of intercollegiate sports announced that the 2021 championships, featuring all 68 teams, not merely the last four teams standing, will play their tournament championship games almost all in Indianapolis and all in Indiana.
This was a decision made based on circumstances of the moment, less about politics and financial gain rather than adapting to the continuing threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to give the tournament the best chance of being played to completion.
Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis, a regular stop for the Final Four over the years, was already scheduled to be the host site of the Final Four this year, though as usual the rest of the tournament was planned for play-in games and early-round games to be contested all over the country.
Now all games will be played within the state of Indiana, March Madness geographically condensed into Hoosier Madness, following selection Sunday March 14.
Calling the decision to play the tournament, which has been contested since 1939, all in one tight area an “historic one,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said the plan was not an easy one to create.
“We have worked tirelessly to reimagine a tournament structure that maintains our unique championship opportunity for college athletes,” Emmert said.
Teams around the country, from No. 1 ranked Gonzaga, to perennial power Villanova and local squad Butler, have had numerous games cancelled or postponed due to the coronavirus this season.
There was no NCAA tournament conducted in 2020 with the scheduled Final Four in Atlanta being cancelled when the coronavirus first flared up and spread across the country. The college basketball season, much like the NBA and NHL, was abruptly terminated. Unlike those two professional sports leagues, there was no resumption of play for those competing in college sports’ winter seasons.
The last Division I champion was Virginia, crowned in early April of 2019.
By scheduling all this season’s tournament games in Indiana over a three-week period culminating with the Lucas Oil Final Four April 3 and 5, multiple basketball venues will be employed, although all participating teams will be housed in hotels near the Indiana Convention Center downtown.
Players, coaches and staff support for the invited teams will be required to follow strict coronavirus protocols limiting interaction, activities and movement.
In addition to the Lucas Oil Stadium focal point for the Final Four games, early-round, Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games will be sprinkled around the Indianapolis area. Host locations will include Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the Indiana Pacers of the NBA, Hinkle Fieldhouse, home of Butler University, Indiana Farmers Coliseum, but also Assembly Hall in Bloomington, home of the Indiana University Hoosiers and Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, home of Purdue University Boilermakers.
“We are honored to team with our friends at the NCAA in Indianapolis for the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament this spring and host games at Simon Skodt Assembly Hall,” said Scott Dolson, IU’s athletic director and vice president. “March Madness is the highlight for all college basketball student-athletes and fans, and we are excited to welcome the tournament back to Bloomington for the first time since 1981.”
Forty years ago, the Final Four had not yet found a niche in football stadiums and was still being played in arenas of about 20,000, not 65,000 and up. Also, the NCAA headquarters was still located in Overland Park, Kansas, not in Indianapolis, within walking distance of Lucas Oil Stadium.
“We are also appreciative of the extraordinary lengths that the NCAA is going to in an effort to protect the health and safety of students, coaches, fans and communities by bringing the event to one central location in Indianapolis,” Dolson said.
In 2010, when Butler reached the NCAA title game before losing to Duke, the championship was played at Lucas Oil and many light-hearted comments were made about how it was so close to campus it would be like a home game for the Bulldogs.
That season, noting Butler’s unexpected run through the tournament, the team was repeatedly compared to little Milan, the 1954 Indiana high school champion featured in the movie “Hoosiers.” Most basketball fans around the country are unfamiliar with Hinkle Fieldhouse, Butler’s home gym, except for viewing that movie. This year Hinkle will be part of the show.
“Butler is part of this community effort,” said Butler athletic director Barry Collier, “and we are particularly excited for Hinkle Fieldhouse, one of basketball’s most iconic venues, to host NCAA tournament games for the first time in more than 80 years.”
Not addressed by this specific plan are the NCAA Division II and III championships. Gov. Eric Holcomb, however, said the Division II games will be played in Evansville and the Division III games in Fort Wayne.
The NCAA women’s Division I tournament is set for San Antonio, Texas.
In Indianapolis for the Division I men’s tournaments, teams will be assigned specific hotel floors and NCAA officials will work with local health officials on testing programs for individuals. The cloistered areas are akin to a “mini-bubble” environment for those involved with the tournament, differing from the closed-access bubbles the NBA and NHL operated with.
Fan attendance policies have not yet been finalized, but certain numbers of family members will be permitted at the games.
“With the direction of the men’s basketball committee, we are making the most of the circumstances the global pandemic has presented,” said Dave Gavitt, NCAA senior vice president of basketball.
Gavitt said “The 2021 version of March Madness will be one to remember.”