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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A new season of college basketball begins Wednesday, and the goal is clear: March Madness must be played.

Why it matters: On March 12, 2020, the lights went out on college basketball, depriving teams like Baylor (who won our tournament simulation), Dayton, San Diego State and Florida State of perhaps their best chance to win a national championship.

  • Without the 2020 tournament, the NCAA distributed $375 million to its D-I programs than it planned. That simply cannot happen again.

The state of play: Over 100 games will take place Wednesday. But instead of starting with familiar events at Madison Square Garden and in Maui, teams will play at a Connecticut casino (Mohegan Sun) and in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • Matchups are being changed on a daily basis due to positive tests, and that could continue through the rest of the week — and all season.
  • Tennessee canceled two games on Monday (including one against No. 1 Gonzaga) after multiple positive tests; Duke and Georgia's first games were called off; the season-opener was changed four times before being scratched.
  • The women's season begins without its biggest brand name, as UConn announced Monday that it will enter a 14-day quarantine following a positive test in the program.

The big picture: COVID-19 is the immediate threat, and how teams navigate the virus will be the primary storyline all season. But even before the pandemic, college basketball was at an existential crossroads.

  • The NBA is encouraging players (like No. 2 recruit Jalen Green) to join their G League rather than play college hoops for free, and TV ratings have fallen considerably.
  • Meanwhile, the NCAA's attempts at rule enforcement have never looked weaker. Three years ago, the corruption scandal — complete with wiretaps and courtroom drama — promised a reckoning. Where is it?

The bottom line: This is going to be a unique journey. And for a sport so directly linked to the crowd, the lack of fans at most games will set a somber tone.

  • Yes, but: There's a certain magic to college hoops that even empty arenas can't ruin. And ultimately, amid all this, nearly 90% of D-I programs are up and running.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Dec 24, 2020 - Sports

Rockets' James Harden fined and NBA game with Thunder postponed over coronavirus

The Houston Rockets' James Harden during game against the San Antonio Spurs at the Toyota Center last Thursday in Houston, Texas. Photo: Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

The NBA announced it's fining Houston Rockets star James Harden $50,000 for COVID-19 protocols violations and postponing his team's Wednesday night season opener with the Oklahoma City Thunder following a coronavirus outbreak.

Why it matters: The NBA suspended the previous season in March due to the pandemic. It returned to play in late July in a bubble at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando.

1 hour ago - World

Army to award Purple Hearts to troops injured in Iran missile attack

Damage at Ain al-Asad military airbase housing U.S. and other foreign troops in the western Iraqi province of Anbar in January 2020. Photo: Ayman Henna/AFP via Getty Images

The Army has approved 39 more Purple Hearts for U.S. soldiers wounded in an Iranian military ballistic missile attack on an Iraq base in January 2020, the Army Times first reported Wednesday.

Why it matters: Most of these soldiers sustained brain injuries, per the Army Times. Then-President Trump dismissed their injuries at the time as "headaches" and "not very serious," sparking backlash from some veterans groups.

Scoop: U.S. begins denying Afghan immigrants

Afghan refugees on a bus bound for temporary housing after arriving in Greece. Photo: Byron Smith/Getty Images

The Biden administration has begun issuing denials to Afghans seeking to emigrate to the United States through the humanitarian parole process, after a system that typically processes 2,000 applications annually has been flooded with more than 30,000.

Why it matters: Afghans face steeper odds and longer processes for escaping to the U.S., despite the earlier sweeping efforts by the Biden administration to assist its allies. Immigration lawyers and advocacy groups say the government has set untenable barriers to a safe haven in the U.S.