In this March 2020 file photo Maeve Carroll of the University of Maine (5) battles Vermont's Delaney Richardson (left) for a rebound during the an America East quarterfinal game at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The America East Conference, in an attempt to keep its teams safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, has altered its basketball tournament format for this season.

The event will be played beginning the first week of March and will be held over two weeks at multiple campus sites. All teams will qualify as long as they have played at least 12 Division I games, including nonconference contests, by the end of the regular season.

The University of Maine women, who are atop the conference standings with a 9-1 league record, have already played 13 games and are 12-1.

“We are not thinking about the playoffs. We are just working day by day and trying to stay healthy and get better,” UMaine women’s coach Amy Vachon said.

The UMaine men have played only nine games (2-7) so far, and UMaine athletics are in the middle of a pause because of COVID-19 cases in the department.

The top two teams in the men’s and women’s divisions will earn automatic berths into the semifinals, which will be held at one predetermined campus site for each tournament. That will be labeled championship week.

Sean Tainsh, senior associate commissioner of America East, said the semifinals and finals will have to be held at a site within a three-hour drive of Piscataway, New Jersey, because that is where the league’s COVID-19 testing partner’s lab is located.

The first phase of the tournament will be called Playoff Pod week with the Nos. 3-4 seeds serving as the hosts. The teams in each pod could be chosen by seeding, or by geographic proximity, although America East will not move a team more than one spot to fill out the bracket.

“I think the athletic directors and conference administrators thought through this carefully and came up with the best plan to have a fair and meaningful championship,” UMaine men’s basketball coach Richard Barron said. ‘We are looking forward to getting back on the court and hope we can be playing our best basketball fully healthy as we head into the tournament.”

The women’s championship game will be played at 5 p.m. March 12, and will be televised nationally on ESPNU. The men’s title game will be played at 11 a.m. March 13, and will be shown on ESPN2.

The America East men’s and women’s champions earn berths into the NCAA Tournament.

“We’ve prioritized the health and safety of our student-athletes and coaches while best positioning our teams to maximize their competition opportunities during this unique season,” America East Commissioner Amy Huchthausen said. “This championship format is consistent with those guiding principles and rewards all of our student-athletes with a championship experience after an exciting but challenging regular season.”

The UMaine women won the 2018 and 2019 league tournaments, but last year’s championship game between UMaine and Stony Brook was cancelled due to the pandemic.

The Vermont men won the 2019 America East tourney.

The UMaine men have never won the America East tournament or qualified for the NCAA Tournament.

The championship structure was designed in compliance with NCAA Championship requirements and will allow the conference to facilitate daily COVID-19 testing during Championship Week. The format will also reduce team travel and exposure for participants.

“It’s critical that we balance the competitive aspects of championship planning while ensuring our teams can participate in a safe manner,” Huchthausen said. “We believe this approach will position us well in that regard while giving us flexibility if adaptation is necessary.”

Specific dates for Playoff Pod games and semifinals along with campus sites for the men’s and women’s Championship Week will be determined and announced at a later date.