East Tennessee State basketball coach Steve Forbes said he couldn’t wait for his team to hear its name called on Selection Sunday. The Buccaneers were a projected No. 10 seed after winning the Southern Conference’s automatic bid and a favorite to play the role of bracket-buster.
Now that opportunity is lost.
The NCAA announced Thursday the cancellation of the men’s and women’s basketball tournamentsas a result of the coronavirus pandemic just a day after the governing body initiated a plan for NCAA tournament games without fans. The move came on the heels of the NBA suspending play as two of its players, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz, tested positive for COVID-19.
Major conference tournaments planned to host games without fans on Thursday before deciding to cancel games altogether, and then some schools and conferences suspended all their athletic events — putting pressure on the NCAA to make an unprecedented decision.
“I’m heartbroken for our players,” Forbes told USA TODAY Sports prior to the announcement but also anticipating it. “We care about the safety of everyone first and foremost. But we went from the euphoria of knowing we’re going to be playing in the NCAA tournament, with memories that last a lifetime, to the disappointing feeling of (postponement).
“You know what I’m sad most about? Selection Sunday is the best day of the year when you hear your name called on TV. These kids have been working for this since June. To not get to experience that the way they were expecting is devastating.”
What first started as thousands of fans getting a refund for tickets they purchased to attend the games has now transformed into millions of fans reacting to the cancellation of March Madness — one of the biggest spectacles on the national sports calendar when fans and even those who do not follow college basketball fill out brackets in office pools.
“March Madness is built on the fans, so obviously we feel for the fans in this, too,” said Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley, who won two national championships for Duke as a player in the 1990s.
For coaches and players on the 68 men’s teams that would’ve played in the NCAAs, the situation produces a bittersweet state of emotions.
Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said the heartbreak is undoubtedly there, but “that doesn’t even complicate the situation.”
“The safety and well-being takes absolute precedent. This is too serious. We don’t want to put anyone at risk to play an NCAA tournament game,” said Jacobson, whose 2009 Northern Iowa team upset top overall seeded Kansas to reach the Sweet 16.
The Panthers were one of many bubble teams waiting on conference tournament games to unfold to see if they’d hear their name called on Selection Sunday.
“Playing in the NCAA tournament is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Jacobson said. “It’s what you dream about growing up and for some of these guys for their careers. For some teams they go every year, for others it’s every few years or 10 years. Then for some, it’s once in a lifetime. Even still, the (coronavirus pandemic) trumps those emotions, as complicated and painful as they are.”
Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley was in the NCAA tournament’s First Four games the past two years and said the adrenaline from a tradition-rich fanbase like Dayton, Ohio, would be missed by players.
“This is a tough situation for all parties involved,” Hurley said. “When I think of what it was like (as a player at Duke) and when I see how my (Arizona State) players were embraced by fans at Dayton, it’s hard to imagine it being the same without fans. … But first and foremost, the NCAA will do what is safest and no matter how disappointed we might be, we support and respect it.”
NCAA referee Gerry Pollard was slated to officiate the Big 12 tournament quarterfinal game between Kansas and Oklahoma State Thursday before it was canceled.
“We’re walking in the land of unknown,” Pollard, who officiated 17 consecutive NCAA tournaments, said before the NCAA announcement. “Right now, we’re expecting the unexpected. To not have a tournament is unprecedented. It would be surreal to have a game with no fans. We’ve had closed-door scrimmages in the past but obviously none had the ramifications of tournament games. A lot of things will be heard between refs and coaches not usually heard. Some of the players might be used to feeding off the adrenaline of the crowd, and they won’t have that.”
Creighton coach Greg McDermott said last week that his staff and players are trying to focus on what they can control. The Bluejays were co-champions in the Big East, the country’s No. 1-rated conference based on the NCAA’s NET metric. They had their game against St. John’s in the Big East quarterfinals canceled halfway through on Thursday.
“There someone lot smarter than me that will know how to handle something like (the coronavirus outbreak and NCAA tournament games). We are just trying to focus on what’s in front of us,” McDermott said.
Said Villanova coach Jay Wright on ESPN, “This has grown to be such a national issue. … (The players) were obviously disappointed but they realize this is a serious national issue.”