Texas is wide-open these days, but not for NCAA bubble-bound UM, MSU, CMU

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

They won't get to see the San Antonio River Walk.

Sixty-eight women's basketball teams are descending on San Antonio, Texas, this week, for the NCAA Tournament. That includes three teams from our state: Michigan, Michigan State and Central Michigan. Texas recently became one of the few states to ditch a mask mandate, and to become 100% open for business.

The Michigan State women's basketball team departs for San Antonio on Wednesday.

But it's not open for the women's basketball teams, not even close. Aside from games, practices, team meetings and some meals, players and coaches are being encouraged to stay exclusively in their hotel rooms. That guideline is mandatory upon arrival, until team personnel return two negative COVID-19 tests. Every coach and player gets their own room. They can't have visitors.

"I get a let a little angst when I have to sit at my desk for five minutes," Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. "I guess I'm gonna have to be one of those persons that brings the video into the room and do Jane Fonda’s workout, if anybody knows what that is.

"We’re really limited. I think obviously the health and safety is the No. 1 concern."

Michigan (14-5) and Michigan State (15-8) were traveling to Texas on Wednesday, while Central Michigan (18-8) traveled Tuesday.

All were given private planes, with the traveling party extremely limited. Pictures posted to social media by Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant showed each player with their own row on the plane.

Central Michigan players were required to wear a mask the entire flight — amazingly, even when they were eating or drinking. Tough to do.

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"You can't even take a sip of water," second-year Central Michigan coach Heather Oesterle said, "I guess."

The NCAA put these bubbles together — the men in Indiana, mostly Indianapolis, and the women in the San Antonio era — with the NBA bubble in mind. Last year's NCAA tournaments were canceled amid the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. The NCAA is trying to avoid a similar fate this year. Student-athlete safety and $613 million in school disbursements are at stake.

Like with the men's tournament, women's players and coaches will wear KINEXON monitoring bracelets during games and practices, for contact-tracing purposes.

Oesterle got vaccinated Monday, along with Central Michigan president Robert Davies and his wife, ahead of the Tuesday trip to Texas. Long-time Central Michigan coach Sue Guevara, who led the Chippewas to the Sweet 16 in 2018, will be making her first big trip amid the pandemic, after she was vaccinated. She arrives Friday.

Guevara is looking forward to eating at a restaurant again, but with a mask, she notes.

The players and coaches won't have that option. They'll be served all their meals, indoors, at the team hotel. There are no menus.

The Central Michigan women's basketball team departs for San Antonio on Tuesday.

This week and next — and if they're fortunate, the week after that — require the final sacrifices in a season full of them. Central Michigan, which couldn't get into its gym in the late summer because of state restrictions, set up old Gus Macker baskets and played outdoors.

"Look, we're not the only ones going through this. Everybody's gotta do it, and we've gotta be good until we play," Oesterle said. "We'll do whatever they ask us to do.

"We're not allowed to see any family members, family can't even stay with you at the same hotel. I appreciate what they're doing to keep it all safe."

Depending on contact tracing, it could take as a little as one positive test for a team's season to be over, the clock striking zero before it even starts.

Michigan's three teams know all about the delicate nature of things. Michigan had a lengthy shutdown. Michigan State postponed a handful of games. Central Michigan cancelled a late-season game against Eastern Michigan. Its roster was limited to eight players the rest of the season.

On Monday, Merchant had to miss the Selection Show because a saliva test came back inconclusive. She had to rush to a testing site west of campus to take an up-the-nose test. She laughed about it, as she sat in a line 40 cars deep. She got in just before the 8 p.m. cutoff, and was good to go.

Precautions remain a central focus, even more so this week.

"We talk about it all the time," Merchant said. "We are a team that, knock on wood, has not had huge COVID problems. I still have the majority of my team who has not had it, and the staff. We wear double masks at practice, at least our coaches do. We're like the double bandits over here.

"And we're really extra cautious right now."

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Women's NCAA Tournament

No. 6 Michigan (14-5): vs. No. 11 Florida Gulf Coast (26-2), 3 Sunday, Convocation Center, San Antonio (ESPN2)

No. 10 Michigan State (15-8): vs. No. 7 Iowa State (16-10), 6 Monday, Alamodome, San Antonio (ESPN)

No. 12 Central Michigan (18-8): vs. No 5 Iowa (18-9), noon Sunday, Alamodome, San Antonio (ESPN)

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984