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Why the 2021 NCAA Tournament first round is starting Friday instead of Thursday

The NCAA Tournament is starting later than normal due to COVID-19 protocol. The first round starts on Friday instead of Thursday.

A giant banner showing the tournament bracket hangs from the J.W. Marriott hotel as Indianapolis prepares to host the 2021 NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament on Wednesday, March 17, 2021. Columbus Dispatch-USA TODAY Sports

Since the most recent expansion, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament has played the First Four on Tuesday and Wednesday after Selection Sunday, and then the first round on Thursday and Friday. Even before the First Four became a thing, Thursday was always the first day of the tournament, making for one of the biggest slowdowns in workplace productivity of the calendar year.

This year, that is changing. The First Four is airing on Thursday, and then the first full day of first round action starts on Friday. The first weekend runs Friday through Monday this year instead of the traditional Thursday through Sunday.

The reason for the change is the COVID-19 pandemic. While things appear to be improving with the introduction of multiple vaccines, protocols remain in place around sporting events. For the 2021 NCAA Tournament, that meant creating some additional space in case teams had to withdraw due to COVID-19.

If one or more team had to withdraw prior to 6 p.m. ET on Tuesday, they would be replaced by one or more of the first four teams out. If a team withdrew after that deadline, they would not be replaced and their opponent would claim a forfeit win in the first round.

It would have made more sense for the tournament to be bumped back a week so that teams could quarantine for ten days following their conference tournament. That didn’t happen, leaving teams with an extra day as they prepared. No teams have withdrawn, but we’ve seen multiple teams impacted by COVID-19 as the first round approaches.

The tournament schedule also features changes to the second weekend. Traditionally, the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight have run Thursday through Sunday as well, but this year they are running from Saturday through Tuesday. That creates a quicker turnaround to the Final Four, which starts the following Saturday.