This technological device may keep the NCAA tournaments going

COVID-19 made sure its presence would still linger in college basketball when Kansas, Duke and Virginia had to drop out of their men’s conference tournaments last week due to positive cases.

Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma tested positive on Sunday and is quarantining at home. He won’t be able to join the Huskies for their first-round game and will be eligible to re-join the team March 24.

As the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments kick off this weekend, the organization is hoping to eliminate the possibility of teams having to drop out of the field with the help of small rectangular devices.

Kinexon has been in the sports performance technology business since 2012, but when the pandemic began over a year ago, it turned its attention to helping sports get back to playing.

All teams in the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournament have been given a device called a “SafeTag,” which monitors how long each player and coach are close to each other. The technology is the same that was used in the NBA bubble last year and all NFL teams were supplied by Kinexon this past season.

“What the sensors are doing is they are picking up how close they are to one another and then for how long. That gets uploaded into a very secure software system and then designated medical officials can go back and look at the contact tracing data if somebody tests positive,” said Matt Bontorin, communications manager for Kinexon.

Should someone test positive for the virus, the data collected by the tags is viewed by the NCAA and health officials. If someone spent at least 15 minutes in close contact with the positive person, they will be forced to quarantine. The hope is that the devices will prevent teams from having to forfeit games because of widespread infection.

The tags and software for it costs schools close to $10,000 for a season, but the NCAA paid and ordered close to 6,000 tags for the men’s and women’s tournament, according to CBS Sports.

“I think it was a pretty easy decision for the NCAA to want to adapt this, based on the feedback that they were hearing from some of the schools and some of the conferences and the success that they’ve had,” Bontorin said.

Aside from the positive reception coaches and conferences have given the technology, it even received praise from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as the CDC found that the technology could be useful in the reopening of schools and workplaces across the country.

“Instead of saying ‘We’ve all got to shut down,’ — you don’t want to shut down — but maybe it’s two or three (players) and not an entire team,” said Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner earlier this season to The Atlanta J. His team plays Friday afternoon against Loyola-Chicago, but they will be without ACC player of the year Moses Wright, who tested positive earlier this week and could not travel.

The devices don’t track location so people wearing them won’t be followed, and the company says that the SafeTags have “centimeter-accurate precision”. Lynn Holzman, NCAA vice president of women’s basketball, said those required to wear them — which are players and coaches — only have to when they are participating in team activities. Those that already have been wearing the tags this season have worn them as a watch, lanyard, put them inside their socks or put into a small pocket on their team jerseys.

“It’s so small and lightweight that it’s really not something that they even have to think about,” Bontorin said.

Some schools have made pockets for players to put their SafeTags in, like the Colorado Buffaloes.

Kinexon has a team of service representatives on site for the men’s and women’s tournament should any issues arise. The devices have a 12-hour battery life and can be fully charged in less than two hours. They typically have a red light or noise that goes off if a person spends more than 15 minutes in close contact with someone else, but the feature will be disabled to prevent any distractions during games.

Even though players will be in contact — and unmasked — on the court, during timeouts or in locker rooms, Bontorin said that the company is playing a critical part in making sure the tournament goes on without interruptions.

“We’re providing an essential tool,” Bontorin said. “We realize our role is pivotal in this whole operation.”

Contact Jordan Mendoza at jamendoza@usatoday.com or on Twitter @jord_mendoza

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