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College basketball is back

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A new season of college basketball begins Wednesday, and the goal is clear: March Madness must be played.

Why it matters: On March 12, 2020, the lights went out on college basketball, depriving teams like Baylor (who won our tournament simulation), Dayton, San Diego State and Florida State of perhaps their best chance to win a national championship.

  • Without the 2020 tournament, the NCAA distributed $375 million to its D-I programs than it planned. That simply cannot happen again.

The state of play: Over 100 games will take place Wednesday. But instead of starting with familiar events at Madison Square Garden and in Maui, teams will play at a Connecticut casino (Mohegan Sun) and in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • Matchups are being changed on a daily basis due to positive tests, and that could continue through the rest of the week — and all season.
  • Tennessee canceled two games on Monday (including one against No. 1 Gonzaga) after multiple positive tests; Duke and Georgia’s first games were called off; the season-opener was changed four times before being scratched.
  • The women’s season begins without its biggest brand name, as UConn announced Monday that it will enter a 14-day quarantine following a positive test in the program.

The big picture: COVID-19 is the immediate threat, and how teams navigate the virus will be the primary storyline all season. But even before the pandemic, college basketball was at an existential crossroads.

  • The NBA is encouraging players (like No. 2 recruit Jalen Green) to join their G League rather than play college hoops for free, and TV ratings have fallen considerably.
  • Meanwhile, the NCAA’s attempts at rule enforcement have never looked weaker. Three years ago, the corruption scandal — complete with wiretaps and courtroom drama — promised a reckoning. Where is it?

The bottom line: This is going to be a unique journey. And for a sport so directly linked to the crowd, the lack of fans at most games will set a somber tone.

  • Yes, but: There’s a certain magic to college hoops that even empty arenas can’t ruin. And ultimately, amid all this, nearly 90% of D-I programs are up and running.

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