Coming into the season, the Virginia men’s basketball team anticipated a unique NCAA Tournament experience. The team’s current scenario likely surpasses even its wildest expectations.
“Right now the majority of our team is contact traced and in quarantine because of the positive case that happened after the Syracuse game,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said Sunday night, hours after learning his team’s NCAA Tournament draw.
UVa, a No. 4 seed, is set to play Ohio on Saturday at 7:15 p.m. at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind. The team will be without one individual, who tested positive for COVID-19 following the win over Syracuse in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals on Thursday. Bennett expects that person, who has not been publicly identified, to miss the opening weekend of the tournament.
The other members of the team currently following contact tracing protocols can exit the seven-day quarantine period on Thursday. Assuming the contact traced individuals, who have tested negative in the days since leaving the ACC Tournament, continue to test negative during the rest of the week, they can return to the court for a team-wide practice on Thursday.
Prior to that, players can work out individually in isolation. The team went through a similar experience in December, and players were able to shoot and work out in isolation in John Paul Jones Arena. Much of the team’s preparation for Saturday's game will occur virtually.
“More Zoom time, more video time and things like that,” Bennett said. “It is what it is, but we’re getting the chance to go down there and get ready, and we’ll make the most of it for sure.”
If all goes according to plan, UVa will travel to Indianapolis on Friday.
Once in Indianapolis, the team will receive a COVID-19 test. The group isolates while waiting for results and then takes another test 12 hours later. Both of those tests need to come back negative for players and coaches to be able to compete in the NCAA Tournament.
If Virginia can have five players check all those boxes, the team is eligible to play Ohio on Saturday night. Due to those quarantine measures upon arrival, UVa might not practice in Indianapolis before its first-round game. The Saturday night time slot is ideal for Virginia, because it gives the program time to arrive safely in Indianapolis following its Charlottesville quarantine.
“It could be a situation where you practice here and you just show up at the game and play,” Bennett said.
Virginia is still narrowing down the details of exactly how the week will work, but the team believes it can play Saturday despite being a late arrival to the tournament site.
“It’s never a good time to have [a positive COVID-19 test], and this is not ideal," Bennett said, "but if you’re gonna have it, we took it to about the last day that you can have a positive case.”
Kansas, which also is dealing with COVID-19 issues and will play in the same region as UVa, sits in a similar position as the Cavaliers. The third-seeded Jayhawks were knocked out of the Big 12 Tournament due to COVID issues, not their performance. Even after the sour exit, Kansas is in the NCAA Tournament field.
“It’s been tough,” Kansas junior guard Ochai Agbaji said. “Kind of getting the same feel from last year when we unfortunately didn’t play the Big 12 Tournament at all … but we’re more thankful that we still have the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament.”
The Jayhawks are down three players, according to head coach Bill Self, but the team doesn’t have the same level of contact tracing concerns as Virginia as they prepare for the tournament.
Self’s team plans to travel to Indianapolis on Monday, leaving the three players with the virus behind. Kansas hopes to bring the three student-athletes into the fold once they clear the health protocols.
Despite facing arguably the most challenging situation of any team in the tournament, Bennett was upbeat Monday. He worried after the initial positive that his team’s season might be over. He thought about his seniors and wondered whether their college playing days prematurely ended.
Instead, UVa saw its name flash across the TV on Sunday night as part of the selection show. The Cavaliers plan to compete in the Big Dance, even with a unique week ahead.