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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.

Stalemate over filibuster freezes Congress

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell's inability to quickly strike a deal on a power-sharing agreement in the new 50-50 Congress is slowing down everything from the confirmation of President Biden's nominees to Donald Trump's impeachment trial.

Why it matters: Whatever final stance Schumer takes on the stalemate, which largely comes down to Democrats wanting to use the legislative filibuster as leverage over Republicans, will be a signal of the level of hardball we should expect Democrats to play with Republicans in the new Senate.

Dave Lawler, author of World
2 hours ago - World

Biden opts for five-year extension of New START nuclear treaty with Russia

Putin at a military parade. Photo: Valya Egorshin/NurPhoto via Getty

President Biden will seek a five-year extension of the New START nuclear arms control pact with Russia before it expires on Feb. 5, senior officials told the Washington Post.

Why it matters: The 2010 treaty is the last remaining constraint on the arsenals of the world's two nuclear superpowers, limiting the number of deployed nuclear warheads and the bombers, missiles and submarines which can deliver them.