The N.C.A.A. quietly rewrote part of its coronavirus safety protocols, which college sports administrators have routinely used to justify holding basketball championships during the pandemic, to potentially shorten the quarantines of some teams arriving in Indiana for the Division I men’s tournament.
The association’s published health guidelines, which also apply to the women’s tournament scheduled to begin next week in Texas, call for teams to “remain in quarantine until two consecutive tests on separate days are confirmed negative, at which time team practice may begin.” But the N.C.A.A.’s unannounced change offers teams arriving late at night a quicker way out: negative results on virus tests separated by at least 12 hours.
The shift, acknowledged only after inquiries from The New York Times, allowed Iona, the No. 15 seed in the East region, to practice less than 24 hours after its chartered plane landed in Indianapolis late in the night it clinched its automatic bid.
Late night workout at the practice facility of the @IndianaFever pic.twitter.com/qkJRKhS4AK
The episode involving Iona, which Coach Rick Pitino steered to a victory in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament on Saturday, is an early signal of how the N.C.A.A. may interpret, apply and change the safety rules it is relying on to stage 67 games in Indiana over the coming weeks.
Like their counterparts in many leagues, college sports administrators routinely recalibrated their approach to the pandemic, not just in details but sometimes with respect to issues they had depicted as foundational principles. Last year, for instance, executives regularly said that college games would not happen unless students were on campuses for classes — a position that ultimately faded away as the fall football season approached.
In a statement on Monday, the N.C.A.A. said its medical advisers had decided to allow teams that arrived late at night to leave quarantine after clearing two polymerase chain reaction tests, which are considered to be the gold standard in infectious disease diagnostics, that were administered at least 12 hours apart. And no matter when they arrive, players and coaches, as long planned, must also record seven straight days of negative tests before traveling to Indiana or Texas.
The association did not immediately say when it had changed its quarantine policy or why its published guidelines did not include an exception to it, but the modification was in place by the time Iona landed in Indianapolis, a school official said. In a separate interview on Monday, Mark Emmert, the N.C.A.A. president, said that while the association’s health rules could evolve, its central intent would not.
“There is certainly one part of it that’s never going to change, and that is we’re not going to take any risks that were not advised by all of the medical advisory groups that we have in place,” Emmert said. “We’re simply not going to do that.”
Although Pitino has often run afoul of N.C.A.A. rules over his long career, there is no indication that Iona, which is scheduled to play No. 2 Alabama on Saturday, held a surreptitious practice without the consent of tournament organizers. Indeed, Iona, which arranged its practice time with the N.C.A.A., publicized the workout on its Twitter account late Sunday, not long after Pitino mentioned plans for it during a videoconference with reporters.
Instead, it appears that at least one school in the 68-team field was able to benefit from a rule change that was not widely known.
The Gaels reached their fifth straight N.C.A.A. tournament on Saturday when they defeated Fairfield, 60-51, in Atlantic City, N.J. The team soon headed to the airport there, where a delay kept them grounded for about an hour beyond their scheduled departure for Indianapolis.
Aboard an Allegiant Air flight that routed the Gaels over the Delmarva Peninsula before a turn westward, the team arrived in Indiana as the time neared 1 a.m. Eastern. They went by bus to a hotel, arriving close to 2 a.m., around the time that clocks moved forward for daylight saving time.
Members of Iona’s travel party immediately submitted to testing in exchange for red wristbands, which signified that they had not been cleared for team activities, before heading to individual hotel rooms on an otherwise unoccupied floor.
Ensconced in their rooms until Sunday afternoon, players, coaches and staff members self-administered nasal swab tests at around 3 p.m. The specimens went into vials, which in turn went into envelopes that were sealed with a sticker. Then Iona players and employees received blue wristbands to indicate that they had been tested again but that results were pending.
About four hours later, Iona’s travel party learned via a mobile app that their tests had returned negative results, and members were given credentials with the name of the hotel and the arenas where they could be for practices or games. A few hours later, the Gaels were practicing at the facility of the Indiana Fever of the W.N.B.A.
“It’s good that we’re not playing until Saturday because we need practice time,” Pitino said. With Alabama being “bigger, quicker, faster, more experienced,” Pitino said, “the more practice we get, the better off we are.”
Nate Oats, Alabama’s coach, said Sunday that he did not anticipate that his team would practice until at least Tuesday.
“They’ll be in their rooms,” Oats said of the Crimson Tide’s plan for Monday. “They’ll have their iPads, laptops. We’ll get all the video loaded up they can look at their own. We’ll reconvene Tuesday.”
The N.C.A.A.’s ambitious plan to host the men’s basketball tournament, an event more crucial than any other to the association’s finances, has been under scrutiny for months, and some public health experts have sharply questioned the decision to allow spectators. In recent days, the association has grappled with whether two of college basketball’s most prominent programs, Kansas and Virginia, should play in the tournament despite recent virus cases.
Kansas, the No. 3 seed in the West region after it had to pull out of the Big 12 tournament, planned to travel to Indiana on Monday without three people. Coach Bill Self said, though, that he expected those people to join the team later in the week.
“We think we’re — you know, knock on wood — in as good a shape as we can be in,” Self said.
But at Virginia, the fourth seed in the West, Coach Tony Bennett said Sunday night that “the majority” of the team was in quarantine because of contact tracing after a positive test forced the Cavaliers to exit the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament on Friday.
“We’ll be using Zoom a lot,” said Bennett, who led Virginia to a national title in 2019. “It’s certainly a unique way to prepare for the N.C.A.A. tournament, but I’m thankful that the N.C.A.A. gave our young men the chance.”
Dan Gavitt, the N.C.A.A.’s vice president of basketball, said Virginia was poised to make the cutoff — if only barely — to compete. Although organizers prepared a team replacement policy, the bracket will freeze at 6 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday and no new teams will be substituted into the tournament after that deadline.
Pitino, among the most accomplished tournament coaches in history, was not worried about his team, particularly because the N.C.A.A. is only looking for a team to have five eligible, healthy players. And the Gaels have had 10 players test positive and recover from the virus within the last three months.
“Even if we have a problem, we’re still going to play,” Pitino said. “We have 10 players who are capable of playing.”
Gillian R. Brassil contributed reporting.
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