ESPN’s NCAA tournament Bracketology has been updated through games of Thursday, Feb. 18. ESPN’s March Madness Bubble Watch (ESPN+) is also up to date through Thursday’s contests and will be continuously updated to account for key results through March 14. The 2021 NCAA tournament will begin with the First Four on Thursday, March 18, followed by the First Round beginning Friday, March 19. Follow this link for the complete 2021 NCAA tournament schedule.

The first full day of the NCAA tournament is exactly one month away. That alone should be cause for celebration throughout the sport.

Instead, we are distracted by a lingering debate about the value of conference tournaments. In particular, there are continued rumblings that certain schools with an NCAA bid or seed already in the bag would opt out as opposed to putting their Indianapolis availability at risk.

For anyone who cares to listen, I’m calling complete and total B.S. on that. Many of the same schools that were willing to head to the airport on a moment’s notice in November and December — because those games were so important — are suddenly overcome with COVID-19 considerations? Give me a break.

To be clear, I’ve questioned every day since Nov. 25 whether our entire enterprise has been worth the risk. But that trial took place 3,270 games ago, and the verdict is in. We’ve had a season, with more competitive integrity than anyone had a right to expect, and March Madness is upon us. A madness, it should be noted, which is conference tournament-only for about 80% of Division I teams.

The NCAA has basically put this year’s 31 automatic qualifying conferences on the honor system. The men’s basketball committee reminded conferences last week of the Feb. 26 deadline to make clear how their respective champions would be determined.

I would have gone a good bit further (privately, if need be). It should be made clear, in the absence of compelling and confirmed medical circumstances, that any conferences or schools manipulating the auto-bid system do so at their own risk.

In other words, “You want to keep your league favorite home to sneak in an additional team? Fine. No automatic bid next year.” Or, to really get their attention, “Play a conference tourney without your best teams in the field? OK. No revenue unit for this year’s AQ.”

The NCAA has all but said that any teams hit with COVID-19 can isolate the individuals and play on. While it would be incredibly unfortunate for any team to lose a star player, the same applies to high ankle sprains or academic ineligibility.

Nothing about this situation is fair. The whole idea has been to make it as fair as possible. Picking and choosing who and when to play doesn’t add to the “fairness factor” in my book.

My answer if a highly ranked team missed its conference tournament for suspicious reasons? That’s easy.

“I hope they like the play-in game…”

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