- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Shortly after Tony Bennett found out Virginia made the NCAA tournament as a No. 4 seed, the coach got a text from associate athletic director Ronnie Wideman.

Wideman ran through all that’s happened from October to now. Early in the fall, it was unclear if there even would be a college basketball season, or what that campaign would look like. And last week, when the Cavaliers’ ACC tournament ended prematurely with a positive coronavirus case, the team didn’t know if they’d be able to compete in the NCAA tournament.

“Reading that put it into perspective,” Bennett said of the message.

Virginia’s NCAA tournament preparation is unlike anything done before. With the majority of the team in quarantine until Thursday and a first-round matchup Saturday, the Cavaliers might practice together as a squad just once before taking the floor against Ohio.

Despite all of that, though, they still have an opportunity — and that’s all Bennett can ask for, the glimmer of light at the end of a nerve-wracking week of testing and containment.

“This is certainly a unique way to prepare for the NCAA tournament,” Bennett said. “But I’m thankful that the NCAA gave our young men the chance — because they earned their way into it — the chance to get into this tournament considering our circumstances.”

Virginia already endured a coronavirus shutdown in December, forcing the team to miss three games. But the latest hurdle came last week at the ACC tournament, when the Cavaliers discovered following their win against Syracuse that a player had tested positive for the virus.

They underwent a second round of testing, hoping for a false positive. But early Friday morning, the news was confirmed, ending Virginia’s stay in the conference tournament.

With one week until the NCAA tournament was set to begin, there was more uncertainty for the Cavaliers. The selection committee called Virginia’s name Sunday, though, because most of the team should be cleared to play come this weekend.

“There’s never a good time to have it, and this is not ideal but, if you’re going to have it, we took it about to the last day that you could have a positive case [and still compete in the NCAA tournament],” Bennett said. “Our people are working, our doctors are working with the NCAA medical people to follow all the protocols.”

While the quarantine endures for Virginia, players can work out and shoot individually. They can’t practice in groups or as a full team, though, until at least Thursday. So in the meantime, meetings are held virtually.

Once the Cavaliers arrive in Indianapolis on Friday, each member of the program will need to produce two negative coronavirus tests at least 12 hours apart before they can practice or play. That could further limit how much preparation time Virginia has together ahead of its first-round matchup.

“It could be a situation where we practice here and you just show up at the game and play,” Bennett said. “That stuff I don’t know all the details yet. We’ll get into that. It’s unique prep, but we’ve got the chance.”

To hold the tournament during the pandemic, the NCAA brought all 68 teams in the field to the Indianapolis area, setting up a pseudo-bubble.

In the first disruption of the NCAA’s plans, six officials were sent home after one tested positive for the coronavirus. The five others were caught in contact tracing. The group had received permission to get dinner when their hotel rooms weren’t ready yet. Four replacement officials have already arrived in the city.

There have been five positive cases in the 2,300 tests administered so far, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said, but those positives don’t necessarily include team personnel.

“This is a virus we don’t control. It controls us,” Gavitt said. “Not just from an event standpoint but an individual standpoint, we try to put safeguards in place to protect everyone’s health and safety and the integrity of the event, but it can’t be perfect. It’s not going to ever be perfect in a pandemic.”

Sixty-seven of the 68 teams have already arrived in Indianapolis, with Virginia the lone program waiting to travel. The NCAA had until Tuesday at 6 p.m. to replace Virginia with one of four possible stand-by teams — Louisville, Colorado State, Saint Louis and Mississippi — although that deadline came and went.

Kansas and Georgia Tech are also experiencing coronavirus issues, but those squads are already in Indianapolis.

“Teams have been very cooperative,” Gavitt said. “Things are going quite well, but no one’s letting their guard down. No one’s making any assumptions about the lack of challenges going forward. So far, so good.”

There are still reasons for the Cavaliers to hold their breath. They need to clear quarantine without any more cases, travel to Indianapolis Friday and play a game Saturday with little-to-no on-court preparation.

But at the end of a season like none other, Bennett will accept an unusual buildup to the tournament. His team still gets to play.

“You just make the most of it,” Bennett said, “and get as ready as you can in the ways that you can.”

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