Skip to main content

March Madness 2021: NCAA Tournament COVID-19 Rules and Protocols, Explained

In the last two days, three different men's college basketball programs—Duke, Virginia and Kansas—have withdrawn from their respective conference tournaments due to positive COVID-19 cases within their programs.

As teams across the country finish conference tournaments before the NCAA tournament begins next week, player safety and public health remains a concern.

The NCAA issued guidelines and protocols on how teams will be eligible to participate in the Big Dance last month.

Here is a breakdown of rules of how the NCAA will handle COVID-19 issues for the men's and women's basketball tournaments:

What clearance requirements are needed for teams and their travel party to enter the NCAA Tournament?

According to the NCAA, teams are required to have seven consecutive days of negative tests results in order to play in Indianapolis and San Antonio. The seven-test protocol also includes people in the school's 34-person travel party. Programs can elect to travel in smaller groups if some members of the school's party are ruled out due to positive tests or contact tracing.

Members of the party who are held back will still have to meet the required protocols at a later date if they would like to travel. 

In the cases pertaining to Virginia, the Cavaliers (a projected No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament) will play on Friday or Saturday in the first round of the tournament. Virginia has enough time to produce seven consecutive days of negative tests butthe deadline is close.

In addition to the tests, each team must have five eligible players to participate. As of now, the NCAA has not stated whether it would change the schedule for teams with positive cases or contact tracing to allow them to start on Saturday, the second day of the first round. 

Will players be monitored after entering the NCAA tournament?

Once players on the team and the school's travel party have been cleared, members of the travel party will be tested again, put in quarantine until producing a negative result and will take daily PCR tests for the duration of the tournament.

Players will wear a SafeTag device that can be worn in their pockets, bracelet or lanyard to assist in contact tracing issues. Every program will be eligible to enter and remain in the tournament as long as it meets the five eligible player mandate. 

What will happen if a team is not able to play in the NCAA tournament?

If teams are impacted by COVID-19, they will be forced to withdraw and a contingency plan will be drawn up to replace the team.

According to the NCAA rules, if a team has to withdraw, the first order of business to make sure all 31 conferences—with the exception of the Ivy League—are represented in the tournament. If a program from a conference with only one tournament bid withdraws, that team will be replaced with a team from the same conference. 

When it comes to teams in a conference with multiple NCAA tournament bids, then a selection will come from at-large teams when the field is announced on Selection Sunday. 

The highest-ranked four at-large schools that fail to make the tournament will be considered replacement teams. The teams will be ranked from one to four and will be required to continue testing protocols. After the tournament begins next Friday, there will be no replacement teams.

Will there be seeding changes to the NCAA tournament bracket?

There will be no seeding changes once the tournament begins. The incoming team will take the position on the bracket of the team it replaces.

If an automatic-qualifying team is unavailable to play before the teams are announced, the conference can identify a replacement team. Once the field is announced, any school from a single-bid team will have to pass seven consecutive days of COVID-19 tests to become a replacement and represent its conference. 

How will late changes be handled in the NCAA tournament?

There will be no teams joining the men's and women's basketball tournaments once they begin. The deadline for teams to be replaced in the respective tournaments is 6 p.m. ET on March 16. The men's tournament will begin on March 19 in Indianapolis and the women's tournament will start on March 21 in San Antonio. 

For teams unable to play due to medical reasons after the deadline has passed, the team's opponent will advance per the NCAA's no-contest rule. John Rothstein of CBS Sports reported that teams have until 11 PM on Saturday to notify the Selection Committee if they're unable to meet the medical protocols to play in the NCAA tournament.

SI’s tournament newsletter analyzes everything you need to know about the Big Dance: what just happened and what’s happening next. Sign up for Morning Madness here.

Sign Up to Play SI's Bracket Challenge and Compete For a Chance to Win Prizes. Create Your Group Now | Official Rules