The men’s basketball team at Duke University was one of the weaker teams in its conference. A freshman had decided in February to declare for the N.B.A. draft and not play the rest of the season. With a 13-11 record, the Blue Devils’ prospects for making the N.C.A.A. tournament were among their dimmest in decades.
But until the hours after a Wednesday night victory over Louisville, Duke had avoided the signature struggle of this college basketball season: a positive coronavirus test by a player or a coach. Then a player tested positive, and by lunchtime on Thursday, Duke’s season was done.
“This season was a challenge for every team across the country, and as we have seen over and over, this global pandemic is very cruel and is not yet over,” Mike Krzyzewski, Duke’s coach, said in a statement after the team was forced to withdraw from the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. “As many safeguards as we implemented, no one is immune to this terrible virus.”
The day’s decisions, which rose out of the A.C.C.’s medical protocols that govern positive tests and mandatory quarantines, made final that Duke, a five-time national champion, would miss the N.C.A.A. tournament for the first time since 1995. (The 2020 tournament was canceled a year ago on Friday, before the bracket was set and when Duke was 25-6, because of the virus.)
But while this Duke team was not a terrifying power like so many of its predecessors, its compulsory exit from basketball’s postseason was a warning throughout the sport before its biggest moment that the next few weeks could quickly go awry.
The N.C.A.A. plans to welcome 68 teams to Indianapolis for the men’s tournament, which will begin next week, and 64 to San Antonio for the women’s competition, which is scheduled to start on March 21. Fans will be welcome at many games, and although players, coaches and other people in certain roles will be tested daily for the virus, the N.C.A.A. has not constructed a heavily restricted environment like the one the N.B.A. and other pro leagues used last season.
The health statuses of the teams are so fluid that the bracket, which will be released for the men’s tournament on Sunday evening, will not freeze until 6 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday. Until then, replacement teams will be on standby to fly to Indiana if a team in the bracket faces its own coronavirus crisis.
And as Duke saw on Wednesday and into Thursday, those crises can intrude on the most well-guarded, well-financed and well-monitored programs.
“Every coach in America is concerned about how fragile what we’re doing is,” said Leonard Hamilton, the coach for Florida State, which had been scheduled to play the Blue Devils on Thursday and automatically advanced in the A.C.C. tournament after Duke’s withdrawal. “You really have to stay within your own little team bubble where you go, where you eat, where you sleep, who your friends are, who you come in contact with, the sacrifices you have to make.”
He added, “You can be the most disciplined person in the world, but by accident you run into something you don’t even know where it came from. This is what we’re all facing.”
Under the A.C.C.’s protocols, basketball is classified as a high-risk sport and players undergo regular testing. But one of the greatest scourges of roster management in any sport over the last year has been contact tracing, which can sweep up most or all of a team in short order. Indeed, Duke’s athletic director, Kevin White, suggested Thursday that all of Duke’s players had been ordered to quarantine. In December, the Duke women’s team ended its season early, citing safety concerns related to the pandemic.
N.C.A.A. officials hope that the systems they have set up in Indiana and Texas will allow the tournaments, which are crucial to the association’s finances, to proceed without any outbreaks. But they have also set a policy for when a team must leave the single-elimination tournaments: when a school does not have at least five eligible, healthy players.
Duke’s experience, including the requirement for players to be quarantined for at least seven days, again showed just how fast a roster can splinter. But Thursday also brought a reminder of how one team’s troubles do not necessarily doom another’s prospects to keep playing.
Louisville, which Duke beat, 70-56, on Wednesday night, quickly said on Thursday that it did not believe that any of its players would be affected by contact tracing, an assessment largely fueled by the digital tracking devices that players use during games and will also wear during team activities at the national tournaments.
“Our group is tested daily and on a path to have the requisite consecutive days of negative tests to be able to compete” in the N.C.A.A. tournament, Louisville said.
But for whatever optimism there is around the sport because of Louisville-style chances to press ahead anyway, there is virtually no one who thinks March and early April will prove easy.
As Mitch Barnhart, Kentucky’s athletic director and the chairman of the N.C.A.A. tournament selection committee, put it this week, before Duke’s withdrawal, “We’ve come this far, so now let’s hope we get to the finish line three weeks from Monday.”
Adam Zagoria contributed reporting.