MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – It’s a three-week stretch of nail-biting college basketball, covering screens for hours, with all of our hopes scribbled on precious paper: the bracket.

How does a team make the NCAA tournament?

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“They either win their conference championship game or the committee chooses them to be in the tournament,” said University of Minnesota sophomore Caden Fey. “Right now I have three (brackets).”

“Usually about 5-10 (brackets),” added senior Logan Krenik.

Sixty-eight teams make it in the tournament, 32 automatically enter by winning their conference tournament, but one conference, the Ivy League, opted out of winter sports due to COVID-19.

That left 35 teams this year, normally 34, to get an at-large bid.

Those bids are picked by a committee comprised of 10 college athletic directors and conference commissioners, led by University of Kentucky Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart.

They select teams, seed them 1-68, and build the bracket.

It’s an already tedious and arduous process made more difficult in a pandemic.

“Trying to just sort of find a level playing field for all of that was a little bit of a challenge,” Barnhart said on Selection Sunday.

At-large bids are determined by metrics like regular-season record, strength of schedule, and key wins and losses among several others.

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But many teams had to weather COVID-19 outbreaks this year.

“Like Baylor, they lost because they didn’t play for 21 straight days,” said Krenik.

Pete Gillen, CBS Sports college basketball analyst, and former college basketball coach feels teams like Baylor were hurt by missing out on games since it was riding an undefeated streak.

Others, like Georgetown, used their brief shutdown to recalibrate and better themselves after a rough start, he said.

“Some teams didn’t play their whole schedule, didn’t play the same amount,” said Gillen. “Uncharted territory. This is the unknown of what’s gonna happen.”

The potential for more outbreaks is why the NCAA announced four replacement teams. They would sub-in if a tournament team had a COVID-19 outbreak prior to the start of the tournament.

“I think that’s a great provision by the NCAA. Hopefully, it won’t happen,” he said.

The deadline for teams to be replaced was Tuesday evening and if a team has a COVID outbreak during the tournament, they are removed and their opponent advances.

“It’s not perfect but it’s 100 times better than (the tournament) getting wiped out,” Gillen said.

As for his pick to win it all, his choice is one Gopher fans know well.

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“Big Ten was the best league in the country and Illinois was the best team in the best league. So I think they’ve been in the fire more, Illinois,” he said.

Jeff Wagner