What we know and don’t know about Duke’s positive COVID-19 test

March 12, 2021 10:34 am by Web Desk


The Duke Blue Devils are out of the 2021 ACC tournament after a positive COVID-19 test within their men’s basketball program, the conference announced Thursday. The Blue Devils, who were scheduled to play Florida State in the ACC quarterfinals on Thursday, have been eliminated from the event, which is scheduled to run through Saturday. This marks the highest-profile COVID-19-related cancellation or postponement during a 2020-21 college basketball season marked by altered schedules, team pauses and general logistical issues throughout the sport.

The news also raises a number of questions that will reverberate throughout college basketball in the coming hours and days. Is Duke’s season over and its NCAA tournament hopes dashed? Will other ACC teams be impacted by the news? How will the conference and other leagues handle the remainder of their tournaments? What will such a situation mean if it occurs in the 2021 NCAA tournament, scheduled to run through April 5? ESPN.com’s college basketball team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello and John Gasaway examined all of the basketball, non-basketball and historical implications of Thursday’s news:

What do we know about Duke’s positive test?

At this point, we don’t know exactly who tested positive or when. The school announced it was a member of the program’s Tier 1 personnel but offered no details.

— Jeff Borzello

Does this mean Duke’s NCAA tournament bubble will burst?

Yes, it is very likely. For deeper analysis of Duke’s place on the bubble and how the end of its season could affect others, visit Bubble Watch.

— John Gasaway

Does this mean Duke wouldn’t be allowed to play in the NCAA tournament? What are the protocols for testing that would allow Duke to play another game this season?

It’s not impossible for Duke to be cleared to play in the NCAA tournament. If the rest of the roster continued to test negative (assuming only one person tested positive on Thursday), they could still test negative for seven consecutive days and therefore be able to travel to Indianapolis on Sunday or Monday. Contact tracing would have knocked players out of Thursday’s game, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they would’ve tested positive.

If Duke was one of the last four teams out, it could technically serve as a replacement team. Per NCAA guidelines, those teams are asked to stay on campus and continue to test. The guidelines requiring seven consecutive negative tests do not change for them. But it’s unclear how a positive test for a replacement candidate about a week out from the event would affect its candidacy, assuming Duke would even want to be included. If the Blue Devils are picked on Selection Sunday, the same protocols remain. At least one coach who spoke with ESPN said he doesn’t believe Duke is done yet based on both scenarios.

That said, it appears that Duke’s season is over. Duke AD Kevin White said in a statement the cancellation “will end our 2020-21 season.” Mike Kryzewski’s statement says, “I loved the 2020-21 Duke Basketball team and was honored to be their coach,” which doesn’t sound like something you’d say if you expected to keep playing this season. But it could be interesting to see what happens on Sunday.

— Jeff Borzello and Myron Medcalf

What are the historical implications of Duke missing the NCAA tournament?

Years from now, when this is safely put in the past, we may reflect on a remarkable fact. In each of two consecutive years, Duke pulled out of the ACC tournament before any other competitor. The first time it was a free and ultimately wise decision. The second time it was by necessity.

This puts a stop, of course, to a streak of NCAA tournament appearances for the Blue Devils dating to 1996. As for other blue-chip programs, it would appear that this will also be the first NCAA bracket since 1976 that will not include either Duke or Kentucky. The Wildcats lost to Mississippi State in the SEC tournament on Thursday.

— John Gasaway

If this scenario occurs with a team in the NCAA tournament, how will the NCAA handle it?

The situation might be different in the NCAA tournament. First, any team that enters the “controlled environment” in Indianapolis has to have seven consecutive negative daily tests. NCAA officials have announced that no teams will be replaced once the event starts. On Wednesday, however, as the selection committee commenced deliberations, Dan Gavitt, senior vice president of men’s basketball, clarified that any team with five “healthy” players can proceed. Now, contact tracing guidelines could eliminate individuals in a circumstance similar to what Duke faced too. But a positive test that does not completely neutralize an entire roster will not necessarily end a program’s season once the NCAA tournament begins.

— Myron Medcalf

The biggest difference between the ACC and NCAA tournament protocols is that the NCAA requires seven consecutive negative tests before traveling to Indianapolis. As a result, the expectation is that this type of situation won’t happen during the NCAA tournament. Moreover, Duke was traveling back and forth from Durham because the school thought it was safer than staying in Greensboro; that also won’t happen during the NCAA tournament.

— Jeff Borzello

Twenty conference tournaments are still ongoing. Given how positive tests could affect NCAA participation for every team still playing this week, will any leagues pull the plug or alter protocols for their conference tournaments?

I’m sure every league in the country — especially the one-bid leagues — is nervous right now. Duke had avoided positive tests all season with the assistance of private facilities and significant resources, two things most schools lack. Commissioners around the country have said they’ll push forward. But they also run the risk of eliminating one or more teams from the field since the seven-day window for negative tests begins Friday.

This is the nightmare. If it can happen to Duke, it can happen to anyone. And in the one-bid leagues, a team will be replaced by an alternate if there are positive tests. In the Power 5 leagues, positive tests could ruin a team’s shot at acing the NCAA’s seven-day testing window prior to Indianapolis.

The protocols seem to be set in these leagues. But the level of caution and concern will rise if there are positive tests in the coming days. And every person who for that reason wanted the conference tournaments to be canceled is shaking their head. The gamble could prove costly.

— Myron Medcalf

What are the next steps for the ACC tournament? What precautions are being taken?

The ACC is proceeding as scheduled aside from canceling the Duke-Florida State quarterfinal game. Florida State will advance to the semifinals to face the winner of North Carolina vs. Virginia Tech, while Duke is going home.

One ACC coach scheduled to play Thursday told ESPN he doesn’t believe Duke’s situation will affect the rest of the field because every team has been strictly isolated leading up to each game. Those teams also tested negative in advance of Thursday’s matchups. So, like the rest of the season, one canceled game will probably not disrupt everything else.

— Jeff Borzello

Duke played Boston College and Louisville on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively. Do we know if those teams were exposed? Are they being tested?

Louisville released a statement saying it tested all of its Tier 1 individuals following Wednesday night’s game and all results came back negative. “We are confident through the ACC’s use of Kinexon digital proximity technology that we will not experience any contact tracing that would affect our team,” the school said. Boston College hasn’t released an official statement yet, although I’m told it’s in the process of gathering more information.

— Jeff Borzello



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