Zoo field trips, Topgolf: How teams are breaking up monotony of men’s NCAA Tournament ‘bubble’
With 68 teams playing 67 games across nearly three weeks in six different venues located in and around the Indianapolis metropolitan area, the men's NCAA Tournament can be seen as a logistical achievement in the vein of the Olympic Games.
"To me, everything was incredible," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. "The facilities. The food. The treatment. The practice facilities. I think it was maybe one of the greatest things that ever took place."
Dramatic hyperbole aside, the feelings of gratitude several coaches and players have expressed toward the NCAA for conducting this year's tournament has roots in a pretty simple concept: Last year's postseason was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, so any tournament is better than none.
That's true even for an NCAA Tournament held under stringent health and safety protocols that shuttle teams between three primary locations — the hotel, the practice and training setup, and one of the six playing venues — and largely sequester players and coaches inside living areas, socially distanced from the general public.
"It’s a necessary evil in a global pandemic," said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey.
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Fans take pictures near signage before the UCLA-Abilene Christian men’s NCAA Tournament game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. (Photo: Michael Caterina, IndyStar via USA TODAY Sports)
On the many off days before the start of tournament play and between the first and second weekends, teams have attempted to "let these guys be kids," as Oregon State coach Wayne Tinkle said, with video games, card games, excursions and competitions in sports other than basketball to break up the monotony of life inside this controlled environment.
"We’ve got to keep them fresh and in a good mental state," Tinkle said. "For these student-athletes, this grind has been a tough one."
Teams have access to Victory Field, the minor-league baseball stadium located across the street from the city's convention center, where the NCAA has constructed a recreational sanctuary of badminton and pickleball courts, cornhole games, soccer balls and footballs in an open space allowing for social distancing.
There have been opportunities for guided tours of the Indianapolis Zoo — Alabama posted a video of coach Nate Oats petting a shark — and trips to a nearby Topgolf, an entertainment venue with driving ranges that allowed Oregon State coaches and players to “play a little Happy Gilmore,” Tinkle said.
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Teams are also being inventive.
Baylor has held Uno and Connect Four tournaments. With limitations on in-person interactions with teammates and coaches. Gonzaga players will gather online and play FIFA or Call of Duty on Xbox. Several programs, such as teams from the Pac-12, arrived in Indianapolis directly from conference tournaments and were unable to bring along video-game systems or even books, leaving players at the mercy of the only in-room entertainment at hand: television and YouTube.
"That's one way we can all hang out and interact with each other while distancing and it's something we like to do," said Gonzaga forward Drew Timme. "It's not ideal, but we're grateful we're here, and we are excited that we get to stay another week."
Without access to barbers and stylists, players and coaches have used spare time for touch-ups and grooming — in some cases, as with players from Oregon State, there have been discussion of lining up and having Tinkle simply go down the line and buzz every head. Teams that advanced out of the first weekend have used down time to run loads of laundry.
"The experience that these guys will have, and I don't mean to come across as if we're content, but I'm so happy for those players in that locker room," Oral Roberts coach Paul Mills said after the Golden Eagles' beat Florida to advance to the Sweet 16. "And for me, I'm glad I get to do laundry. We got here last Saturday. We are off tomorrow. Tomorrow will be a good day because I've run out of clothes."
Michigan has made one habit part of the Wolverines' daily routine: making sure players change their bed linens, coach Juwan Howard said.
"This is a business trip," he said. "Our goal is to continue to keep moving forward wherever and how long we’re going to be here. We’re going to enjoy it. We’re not looking forward to going home early."
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But there are legitimate concerns over how players are handling the stress and tension created by two simultaneous factors: the pressure inherent to the tournament itself and the burden of advancing deep into postseason play amid socially distanced conditions.
According to a study released in February by the NCAA, "the rates of reported mental health concerns experienced within the last month were 1.5 to 2 times higher than have been historically reported by NCAA student-athletes in pre-pandemic studies," and student-athletes who responded to survey questions reported "elevated rates of mental exhaustion, anxiety, hopelessness and feelings of being depressed."
"It's definitely had some times of testing you mentally," said Winthrop guard Chandler Vaudrin. "You're in your room by yourself for a long time, and that can be hard at times. Truly, whoever ends up winning is a very, very mentally tough team."
While still wary of the mental strain placed on players by the soft bubble created by the NCAA, many programs have found that life inside the controlled environment has served to strengthen bonds established during a regular season defined by COVID-19.
Villanova players and staffers eat every meal together, work out together and conduct team meetings on topics other than basketball, coach Jay Wright said. Time inside the bubble has helped coaches get to know Baylor players better, said coach Scott Drew. For every team still alive in the men's tournament, the bubble has removed the pomp and noise of a normal year and allowed teams to remain focused solely on basketball.
"The controlled environment, as the NCAA has put it, is terrific, because we can get away from some of that fanfare that kind of comes your way and people pulling you in a number of different directions," Mills said. "So 100%, I think it helps."
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