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March Madness Gears Up

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right. For college basketball fans, it is a week to celebrate. Their beloved March Madness is back after the men's and women's Division I tournaments were canceled last year because of the pandemic. The men start tomorrow, the women on Sunday. A year's worth of pent-up madness is about to burst, although still somewhat muted by the coronavirus. Here to discuss all of this right now is NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman.

Hey, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: How are you?

CHANG: Good. All right. So once these games actually start and fans settle in to watch them on TV, are they going to notice anything different because of the pandemic?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, they are going to. There will be no bands or cheerleaders that give the games that old college feel. As with all sporting events during the pandemic, there will be cardboard cutouts in the stands along with some real-life fans. And you know, Ailsa, one of the appealing parts of March Madness is this whip around feel to the tournament, especially in the first few days where games are happening all over the country, morning to night.

This year, no whipping around the country. The entire men's tournament is in the Indianapolis area. The women are in the San Antonio area. And organizers wanted to limit travel and exposure to the virus by creating what they hope are protective bubbles - not as airtight as what the NBA and WNBA had last season, but more secure than normal for sure.

CHANG: Interesting. Wait, you said that there will be some real-life fans at these games. How wise is it to have them there?

GOLDMAN: Well, some health experts say it's not very wise not only bringing fans to indoor spaces, but having thousands of people from around the country descend on Indy and San Antonio. The NCAA - which really needs the men's tournament in particular because it's the big annual moneymaker - the NCAA says local health officials in both states and cities have signed off on the plan. Both tournaments will have greatly reduced numbers of fans at the games, but that will include a well-known super fan - now-101-year-old Sister Jean...

CHANG: (Laughter).

GOLDMAN: ...The chaplain for the Loyola-Chicago men's team. You may remember she became an international celebrity in 2018 when unheralded Loyola-Chicago had one of those Cinderella runs and got to the Final Four.

CHANG: Yeah.

GOLDMAN: Well, the team is back this year. So is Sister Jean, who is vaccinated...

CHANG: Awesome.

GOLDMAN: ...And got the OK to go to Indy. And in a Zoom call with reporters, she talked about how she hopes Loyola-Chicago can recreate the magic from 2018. Here she is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEAN DOLORES-SCHMIDT: I got letters from Germany and France saying, you brought great joy to our countries because everybody was so happy. And I hope we do the same thing now because now, we need something to make us happy even more than we did in 2018.

GOLDMAN: And Sister Jean filled out a bracket and has her beloved Ramblers advancing as far as the Elite Eight this time. But sorry to say, I don't know if she's going to be that happy because that's probably too optimistic.

CHANG: (Laughter) Aw. Well, speaking of brackets, who should we be watching for in the men's and women's tournaments?

GOLDMAN: In the men's, the overall Number 1 seed, undefeated Gonzaga, is the first men's team since 2015 to come into the tournament without a loss. Other 1 seeds are Baylor, Illinois and Michigan. For the women's, Stanford is the overall Number 1 seed, but we're watching a very strong UConn team, which hasn't won the tournament since 2016. Interesting, with head coach Geno Auriemma testing positive for COVID last Sunday. If the Huskies can win without him the first two rounds and get to the Sweet 16 and UConn meets Iowa there, a lot of fans are looking forward to a matchup between two stellar freshman guards, Paige Bueckers for UConn and Iowa's Caitlin Clark.

CHANG: That is NPR's Tom Goldman.

Thank you, Tom.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.