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It's official: 2021 NCAA tournament to be played entirely in Indiana

IndyStar

The NCAA and city of Indianapolis have finalized plans to hold the entire NCAA tournament here, according to two sources with knowledge of the agreement. An announcement is expected Monday afternoon.

What is an unprecedented move comes in response to unprecedented challenges. 

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the cancellation of last year's tournament, has already caused significant disruption across college basketball. Games have been canceled or postponed, and several programs around the country have had to pause activity midseason because of the virus. 

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Holding the tournament in one centralized location, the NCAA hopes, will make the logistics of doing so safely and smoothly more manageable. College campuses in Indiana will host games.

The NCAA's men's basketball committee announced Nov. 16 that it was in preliminary talks with Indiana to hold the entire 68-team tournament. Indianapolis was already scheduled to host the Final Four from April 3-5. The NCAA preferred to host the tournament at a single site rather than its typical 13 spread around the country, which it said "would be very difficult to execute" during the pandemic.

“We have learned so much from monitoring other successful sporting events in the last several months, and it became clear it’s not feasible to manage this complex championship in so many different states with the challenges presented by the pandemic,"  Dan Gavitt, NCAA senior vice president of basketball, said in November. “However, we are developing a solid plan to present a safe, responsible and fantastic March Madness tournament unlike any other we’ve experienced.”

Final Four games were played at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2015. The Final Four will return to Indianapolis in 2021 and 2026.

The Indiana Sports Corp. had previously developed a plan for teams and conferences to play inside a bubble. Those games would have been played on courts at the Indiana Convention Center, one option for the NCAA tournament if no fans are allowed.

"Indianapolis has a reputation for hosting the most successful major sporting events in the country – including eight Final Fours," Mayor Joe Hogsett tweeted in November. "Our city also boasts some of the nation’s top public health professionals, whose expertise will be crucial in planning for a safe tournament."

The questions now turn to logistics.

What sites will host games? Will there be fans? Where will teams be housed? Will the structure for the event itself be altered in any way? What will NCAA protocols require regarding testing, contact tracing and isolation?

Should the association opt for a true bubble setup, it would have precedent to follow. Some nonconference tournaments, including the displaced Maui Invitational, bubbled their teams during competition, in some cases to great effect. 

"The Maui event was an unbelievable blueprint for how you can be successful in those types of situations," IU coach Archie Miller said last month. "Hopefully the NCAA tournament can communicate with those guys."

Bubble or not, if the tournament extends beyond Marion County into Indianapolis' wider footprint, IU, Purdue, Ball State and Indiana State could all offer large arenas that could accommodate physical distancing with some fans.

Last month, Purdue athletic director MIke Bobinski said the school has had conversations with the NCAA about hosting tournament games.

“We’re more than happy and willing to do everything we can to be a good partner and be able to host as many as four games over two days,” Bobinski said on the Purdue Sports Weekly radio show. “We’re hopeful that gets done. We want to be part of the solution.”

This year's Final Four was already scheduled to be held at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis. Other potential host locations in the city itself would include Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Hinkle Fieldhouse and the Indiana Farmers Coliseum at the state fairgrounds.

"We welcome this tremendous opportunity for our city and are confident that we could make this an incredible, and safe experience for all involved," said Indiana Sports Corp president Ryan Vaughn.

CBS Sports and Turner Sports will continue to distribute all 67 games of the tournament across TBS, CBS, TNT and truTV, according to the November news release.

The NCAA has made it clear this is a one-year solution to a problem everyone hopes will be off the table by 2022. But given the deep relationship between the city and the NCAA, and Indy's reputation as an ideal site for big events, it's one both sides are confident can work.

“It’ll be different,” Gavitt said in November. “It’ll be historic. And it will be something we treasure and hopefully experience just once … and never again.”

Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.