ATLANTIC CITY (March 8, 2021) – Last year’s Metro Atlantic Athletic Association basketball tournament ended in the middle of the second round as the COVID-19 pandemic put sports on hold.
A year later, and still in the midst of a global pandemic, the tournament returns Monday. It marks the city’s first attempt at holding a major event in the resort in the past year.
“It is fitting that the MAAC Basketball Tournament will be the first event back at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall this year,” said Matt Doherty, executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. “Hosting limited fans and families brings us one step closer to what we hope is our way back to welcoming more attendees at events.”
The return of the tournament, however, is not without challenges.
When teams arrive in the resort over the weekend for the event, each will be housed on its own floor of a casino hotel, with separate meeting rooms. All teams will undergo daily polymerase chain reaction (PCR) COVID-19 testing, league officials said.
The men’s teams will stay at Tropicana Atlantic City in the Havana Tower, while the women’s teams will stay at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City.
The idea of staying in a casino and allowing friends and family at games concerns some coaches.
“Being in a casino doesn’t make me feel great, but we are going to put our best foot forward,” said King Rice, men’s basketball coach at Monmouth University. “This (the virus) is still a major issue in the Black community. I hope that we are doing the right thing.”
Rice is one of seven Black coaches of both men’s and women’s teams in the conference.
Some coaches also are leery about the family factor. Each team was given 150 tickets for friends and family to attend games. The tournament will offer many family members the first chance to watch their children play this season.
“Atlantic City is so open, things are hard to police,” said St. Peter’s College head coach Shaheen Holloway. “How can you tell them they can’t see their mother or father?”
Each person coming into Boardwalk Hall will have to go through a health screening and then be escorted to their seats, which will be in the 200-300 level. There will be no open seating in the 100 level, MAAC Commissioner Richard J. Ensor said.
“The concerns are justified,” Ensor said of players interacting with their parents. “They will not have any contact in the arena.”
The testing protocols for the tournament are expected to cost the conference $200,000, Ensor said.
“We are ready with safeguards and protocols,” he said. “We feel good about our extensive daily testing program.”
During the regular season, players and staff were tested three times per week.
“The protocols are in place to keep everyone safe,” said Niagara women’s coach Jada Pierce. “That is going to be the biggest change; the players are not used to that aspect of it (being tested every day). We are thankful to get to this part in the season.”
The MAAC consists of 11 schools — Monmouth University, Rider University and St. Peter’s University in New Jersey; Siena College, Iona College, Niagara University, Manhattan College, Canisius College and Marist College in New York; and Fairfield University and Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. This is the second year of a three-year deal between the conference and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority to have the tournament in Atlantic City.
The MAAC is not alone in trying to hold its conference basketball tournaments, while also seeking to protect the players. Some leagues have gone as far as putting teams inside a bubble to complete the tournaments.
“This is not a complete bubble,” Ensor said. “We do not have the resources to have a complete bubble.”
Teams will practice at the Atlantic City Convention Center, which also is currently serving as a COVID-19 vaccination mega site. The conference has set up three practice courts at the site.
If a player tests positive during the tournament, it doesn’t automatically mean the team will be forced to withdraw. During the college basketball season, cancellations because of COVID-19 protocols have been a nightly occurrence.
Teams are required to play if they have at least eight scholarship players, but a team can choose to play if they have fewer.
During the regular season, the conference played nearly 90% of the games scheduled.
The winners of both the men’s and women’s tournaments qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
The NCAA is requiring all teams that qualify for the tournament to provide seven consecutive days of negative COVID-19 tests, which is why the MAAC programs will all report to Atlantic City on March 7 for daily testing. If the winning team doesn’t meet the NCAA’s health and safety protocols, then the conference would send the other finalist to the tournament.
“We are looking forward to Atlantic City. It’s been a long journey to come back,” Ensor said.
Nicholas Huba – Press of Atlantic City