March Madness amid COVID: How to watch the 2021 NCAA women's basketball tournament

Henry Bushnell
·8 min read

March Madness and the coronavirus. In 2020, the two couldn't coexist. On March 12 of last year, one day after COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic, the NCAA canceled its women's and men's basketball tournaments. Hundreds of hoopers never played a college game again. The women's game was particularly impacted. A transcendent star didn't get her final shot at glory.

But a year later, the Madness is back. ESPN revealed the bracket for the 2021 NCAA women's tournament on Monday night. First-round game times and TV schedules have also been released. Within a week, games will begin – and all 63 of them will be played in a bubble-like atmosphere in Texas.

[Download a printable bracket from Just Women's Sports]

Below is everything you need to know about the women's tourney.

When does March Madness begin?

This year, unlike previous years, the first round begins on Sunday. The entire first weekend has been pushed back, just like that of the men's tournament. The second round is now on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Here are all the relevant tournament dates:

  • Selection Monday — March 15

  • First round — Sunday, March 21 and Monday, March 22

  • Second round — Tuesday, March 23 and Wednesday, March 24

  • Sweet 16 — Saturday, March 27 and Sunday, March 28

  • Elite Eight — Monday, March 29 and Tuesday, March 30

  • Final Four — Friday, April 2

  • Championship game — Sunday, April 4

[MORE: Everything you need to know about the men's tournament]

When and how can I watch games?

First-round games start at noon ET on Sunday and Monday, and run throughout the afternoon and evening on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and ABC (Sunday only).

The entire tournament can be streamed online or via the ESPN app. The round-by-round schedule can be found here. This year's coverage will be the most comprehensive in the history of the women's tournament.

ESPN unveiled the full first-round schedule as it released the bracket on Monday.

First-round TV schedule

(All times ET. Numbers in parentheses are seeds.)

Sunday, March 21:

  • Noon: Iowa (5) vs. Central Michigan (12), ESPN

  • Noon: Virginia Tech (7) vs. Marquette (10), ESPNU

  • 1 p.m.: Oklahoma State (8) vs. Wake Forest (9), ESPN2

  • 2 p.m.: Tennessee (3) vs. Middle Tennessee (14), ABC

  • 2 p.m.: Kentucky (4) vs. Idaho State (13), ESPN

  • 3 p.m.: Michigan (6) vs. Florida Gulf Coast (11), ESPN2

  • 4 p.m.: Baylor (2) vs. Jackson State (15), ABC

  • 4 p.m.: NC State (1) vs. North Carolina A&T (16), ESPN

  • 4:30 p.m.: Georgia Tech (5) vs. Stephen F Austin (12), ESPNU

  • 5:30 p.m.: Syracuse (8) vs. South Dakota State (9), ESPN2

  • 6 p.m.: South Carolina (1) vs. Mercer (16), ESPN

  • 7:30 p.m.: Oregon State (8) vs. Florida State (9), ESPN2

  • 8 p.m.: UConn (1) vs. High Point (16), ESPN

  • 8 p.m.: West Virginia (4) vs. Lehigh (13), ESPNU

  • 9:30 p.m.: South Florida (8) vs. Washington State (9), ESPN2

  • 10 p.m.: Stanford (1) vs. Utah Valley (16), ESPN

Monday, March 22:

  • Noon: Alabama (7) vs. North Carolina (10), ESPN

  • Noon: Georgia (3) vs. Drexel (14), ESPN2

  • Noon: Rutgers (6) vs, BYU (11), ESPNU

  • 2 p.m.: Arkansas (4) vs. Wright State (13), ESPN

  • 2 p.m.: Arizona (3) vs. Stony Brook (14), ESPN2

  • 2 p.m.: Indiana (4) vs. VCU (13), ESPNU

  • 4 p.m.: Maryland (2) vs. Mount St. Mary's (15), ESPN

  • 4 p.m.: Gonzaga (5) vs. Belmont (12), ESPN2

  • 4 p.m.: Northwestern (7) vs. UCF (10), ESPNU

  • 6 p.m.: Iowa State (7) vs. Michigan State (10), ESPN

  • 6 p.m.: Texas A&M (2) vs. Troy (15), ESPN2

  • 7:30 p.m.: Missouri State (5) vs. UC Davis (12), ESPNU

  • 8 p.m.: Louisville (2) vs. Marist (15), ESPN

  • 8 p.m.: Texas (6) vs. Bradley (11), ESPN2

  • 10 p.m.: UCLA (3) vs. Wyoming (14), ESPN

  • 10 p.m.: Oregon (6) vs. South Dakota (11), ESPN2

Where will games happen?

Rather than have teams travel across the country, the NCAA is bringing all 64 to the San Antonio area. They'll play games at five sites:

  • The Alamodome, a 70,000-seat football stadium in San Antonio, and the host of the 2021 Final Four. (It'll house two separate courts starting in the first round through the Elite Eight.)

  • Bill Greehey Arena in San Antonio, home of St. Mary's University.

  • UTSA Convocation Center, home of the University of Texas-San Antonio.

  • Frank Erwin Center in Austin, home of the University of Texas

  • University Events Center in San Marcos, home of Texas State.

All five venues will host first-round games. The three in San Antonio will host second-round games. The Alamodome will host everything from the Sweet 16 onward.

Will fans be allowed?

The NCAA announced in February that the Alamodome will open at 17% capacity beginning in the Sweet 16. That means some 10,000 fans could be at the Alamodome for the Final Four. They'll be physically distanced and masked.

For first- and second-round games, "attendance will be limited to team players and guests, with each member of the 34-member official team travel party allowed up to six tickets for guests," according to the NCAA.

The 17% capacity at the Alamodome also includes players, team personnel, family members and other staffers.

What are the NCAA's March Madness COVID-19 protocols?

Every player, coach, trainer and other member of "Tier 1" – the team's "inner bubble" – will need seven consecutive negative COVID-19 tests to be cleared for March Madness. They'll then be tested daily during the tournament.

They'll stay in area hotels, and eat prearranged meals in their rooms, or in "physically distanced meal rooms with assigned seating," per the NCAA. They'll wear masks at all times outside those rooms, except when practicing or competing.

Some might have limited contact with a hodgepodge of "Tier 2" and "Tier 3" personnel outside their team's travel party, so this will be a "controlled environment," not a true bubble. They'll have no contact, however, with family members, friends, fans or media.

What happens if a player tests positive for COVID-19?

If a player tests positive, first of all, she'll receive a second confirmatory test (and potentially a third) to ensure it isn't a false positive. (The NCAA has said that "a same-day protocol will be in place for potential false positive tests," to minimize the chances that a player misses a game due to one.)

If the positive is confirmed, the player will go into isolation, and will likely miss the rest of the tournament – unless her team advances deep into it. She could return 10 days after the initial positive test (if asymptomatic) or 10 days after her last symptoms, per the NCAA's CDC-based guidelines.

All of this applies to coaches as well. On Sunday before Selection Monday, UConn head coach Geno Auriemma tested positive. He'll miss the Huskies' first two games as a result.

The trickier question is: What happens to the rest of the team?

Could COVID-19 positives force a shutdown?

If anybody involved in March Madness tests positive, contact tracing will begin immediately. All Tier 1 individuals – players, coaches, etc. – will wear tracking devices to aid health authorities with the process.

That process would determine how widespread a disruption might be. If the infected person only has one or two close contacts, then those close contacts would be quarantined and unavailable for at least seven days, according to guidelines; but team activities, including games, could continue. In UConn's case, Auriemma had zero close contacts, so the rest of the team will travel to Texas without him. Quarantines won't be necessary.

If close contact has occurred throughout a team's travel party, though, then a shutdown might be necessary.

And if a team shuts down, and is unable to compete in a scheduled game, it would forfeit. (There's very little room for schedule adjustments.) "Its opponent would advance to the next round via the no-contest rule," the NCAA has said.

The NCAA has not publicly outlined specific criteria for when a shutdown is necessary. It's clear, though, that an outbreak within one team won't derail the entire tournament.

Would the NCAA replace teams who have COVID outbreaks?

It's unclear what exactly would compel a team to withdraw, beyond having fewer than five players available. The NCAA has, however, outlined its team replacement process.

In short, teams can be replaced – either by the next-best team from their conference, or by the next-best team at-large – up until Tuesday, March 16, at 6 p.m. ET. Once the bracket is set, though, there'll be no re-bracketing. And after that Tuesday deadline, there'll be no team-replacing. Yahoo Sports' Sam Cooper has an excellent, succinct breakdown of all the contingencies here. (The policies for the women's and men's tournaments are essentially the same.)

Anything else I need to know?

If you're looking to prepare for the Madness, Yahoo Sports' Cassandra Negley has been on top of the sport all season, and will continue to be over the next month. You can (and should) follow her on Twitter. You can (and should) read her bracket analysis here.

Oh, and here's everything you need to know about plans for the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

NCAAW 2021 bracket
NCAAW 2021 bracket (Just Women's Sports)

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