Life in the NCAA bubble

By Kellis Robinett
The Wichita Eagle/TNS

Imagine a world where college basketball players aren't that upset when their season comes to an end in March.

No tears in the locker room. Little frustration at the postgame news conference. Plenty of smiles on the bus ride home.

Sounds weird, right?

Well, each of those things are already happening. Why? Look no further than the unprecedented safety measures that were put in place at conference tournaments last week and that will continue at the NCAA Tournament over the next month. Turns out living in a restrictive bubble environment isn't the most enjoyable experience, even if it is necessary to help make sure games get played during the coronavirus pandemic.

Big 12 teams got a taste of the experience last week in Kansas City. The men's squads were secluded inside the downtown Marriott whenever they weren't playing games at T-Mobile Center or practicing at a nearby gym. They underwent daily COVID-19 tests and ate meals out of plastic containers that were delivered to their rooms. Unable to even stroll down the street for a breath of fresh air, passing time between games felt like a chore.

Everyone at the event wanted to win and enter a new bubble environment this week at the men's NCAA Tournament in Indianapolis, but players on the three teams that fell short of that goal - Iowa State, Kansas State and TCU - didn't seem all that bummed about an early trip home.

There was more complaining from the team's that advanced.

"They had to get up at 6 a.m. to do testing this morning and we do not have a morning team," Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton said following a Thursday victory over West Virginia. "Our guys were not happy about that."

The Cowboys stayed in the Big 12's bubble until they flew to Indianapolis and then entered the NCAA bubble, which required every member of their traveling party to spend 48 hours alone in their hotel rooms. None of them will be allowed to interact until they produce back-to-back negative results.

After that, they will be allowed to practice and play games. But not much else.

Talk about isolation.

"I have been here in this hotel going up on 24 hours and I have only left my room two times, and that was with gloves and a mask on to go get tested," Boynton said during a radio interview from Indianapolis. "I literally had to come right back into my room. There are people in the halls to make sure we don't leave. You have to produce two negative tests before you can leave your room, and I am talking about going into the hallway ... We are pretty much shut down here."

Oklahoma's men's basketball team celebrated its arrival in Indianapolis not by posting a video of the Sooners doing something exciting in the city, but a photo of players walking to their hotel rooms ... to take a nap.

The Kansas Jayhawks posted a video on social media asking Christian Braun if life inside the bubble felt as repetitive as the movie "Groundhog Day." Though he said it did feel like he was living the same day over and over, he had not seen the Bill Murray film.

Complaints about the food were starting to leak out on Day 1.

SEC men's basketball teams rarely left their rooms in Nashville at their conference tournament last week, but were not confined to a true bubble environment.

Like it or not, that is about to change.

"They've got us in a room 24-7," Missouri forward Jeremiah Tilmon said last week. "We can't leave. So I'm not looking forward to that at all. I'm going to do what I've got to do to make sure I stay safe, but I don't think none of us are looking forward to that."

Bubble life is an unavoidable part of March Madness this season. Instead of holding the tournament at various sites across the country with thousands of fans watching the action live, the NCAA is hosting every men's game in and around Indianapolis and women's games in the San Antonio, Texas area with only limited attendance.

Players won't be allowed to see friends or family until they are eliminated from the event. Teams that advance to the Final Four might face more adversity from boredom than they will from the opponents lined up across from them on the bracket.

It may take a special type of team, both talented and mentally strong, to win this tournament.

Coaches have applauded their teams for staying resilient in unusual times this season, but safety protocols on campus allowed much more freedom than they will find at the NCAA Tournament.

Will any teams suffer from bubble fatigue?

"The interesting thing is living in the bubble and doing all that," Gonzaga men's coach Mark Few told ESPN this week. "That is going to be a real mental challenge for all of us."