‘The wrong side of history’: On the day the NCAA tournament died

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For the last five months, we have talked about how weird, how unprecedented and how unpredictable the 2020 college basketball season has been.

So it’s only fitting that it came to an end like this: With the NCAA self-imposing a tournament ban due to the spread of a global pandemic.


On Wednesday afternoon at precisely 4:16 p.m. ET, the NCAA sent out a press release announcing that all winter and spring championships would be cancelled. That included the 2020 men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments and came on the heels of every single conference tournament that had not been completed being cancelled, including the Big East tournament, which was ended after Creighton and St. John’s had played one half of basketball.

And in the end, it was the only choice that the organization had.

Postponing the event would have been, logistically, a near-impossibility. We have no idea what a timetable is for when it will be safe to play games again. What do you do with the students who get sent home because their campuses are going to online-only classes? Will they be in shape after spending a month or more away from their team, their practice facility and their coaches? Will they still be academically eligible?

More importantly, how will you keep the best players in the sport from beginning to focus on their professional careers and preparing for the draft? If May Madness were to happen, how would the NCAA balance that with the combine, or with next year’s freshman class arriving to campus?

Who are the automatic bids? Teams play an entire season with the idea in mind that they are going to get a shot at winning an automatic bid in their league tournament. Can you just change the rules like that?

And how, logistically, would you put together a 68-team, 13-city event in the span of, what, a week? Two weeks? Finding gyms, finding transportation for the teams, carving out time for those games to be broadcast.

That would be a nightmare.

In theory, it’s probably possible. In practice, however, I do not see how that gets done.

But playing the event next week was simply not an option, either. The coronavirus has a two-week incubation period. People are carrying the virus right now, as we speak, and have no idea that they are. Case in point: The CAA announced that an official that worked a game on the first day of the event tested positive for coronavirus. He did not show symptoms until 72 hours after the game that he was officiating had ended.

It seems virtually inevitable that there is going to be at least one Division I basketball player that tests positive for the virus. Imagine a scenario where the NCAA tournament was set to be played on time, like nothing was amiss, and after Creighton’s first round win St. John’s announces that one of its players has tested positive. Anyone that has had any recent, direct contact with a person that has tested positive is supposed to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Creighton would be scheduled to play their second round game the next day.

What would the NCAA do in that situation?

Without an adequate protocol for that precise scenario, there is simply no way that the NCAA tournament — any tournament, for that matter — could proceed.

It’s that simple.

I was getting my makeup finished when the news broke.

The American was first, announcing at 11:44 a.m. ET — just 16 minutes before today’s conference tournament action was set to begin — that they would be cancelling their event in Fort Worth. The Big Ten’s announcement came through seconds later. It was followed by the SEC, and the ACC, and the Pac-12.

I was on set at NBCSN. I was prepping to do studio analysis of VCU-UMass, the first of four games to be played in the Atlantic 10 tournament on the network. The news came through at 11:56 a.m. Our control room was alerted before anyone else. The event was being cancelled. The game that was supposed to tip in four minutes, where the teams had already gone through their entire warmup, would no longer be played. We had three minutes to shift gears, and spent the next 90 minutes live on national television trying to process the news along with everyone else.

I bring this up because of the immediacy of it all. One high-ranking source in a top-eight conference told me that he had spent the morning texting with administrators in every other power conference, working through their thought process and letting them know that “we’re inching closer to cancelling this thing.” Another source in a different high-major league said that they were on a call with their board of advisors that morning and that the shift was quick and immediate once the dominoes started to fall.

As one power conference associate commissioner told me, “I’m extremely concerned about being on the wrong side of history.”

If anyone was, it was the Big East, who opted to allow Creighton and St. John’s to play a half of basketball. Commissioner Val Ackerman sharply criticized the NCAA when asked about the decision to allow their Thursday tournament action to start.

“We had NCAA staff, who we’ve been looking to for guidance on a video conference with our presidents a few hours ago, and they did not let on that even they knew that some of these moves were being made by these other conferences,” Ackerman said at a news conference. “So that’s kind of how the last 24 hours have gone.”

As the images of teams getting pulled off of the court, packed into busses and sent back to their hotels started spreading, one thing became evident: It was only a matter of time before the NCAA tournament was toast.

And I’m sad.

I’m sad because March Madness is what I structure my entire life around. My family understands this. They allow me to do it. My parents and grandparents keep schedules clear in case they need to help out with the kids. My wife sacrifices nights and weekends to allow me to be able to work and travel. It’s the annual crescendo, from the February bubble watches to the conference tournaments to the insanity that is the first weekend until, finally, the Final Four.

My favorite week of the year.

So yes, I’m crushed.

This sucks.

But I’m just a guy that loves the sport and is lucky enough to talk about it and write about it.

The guys that are hurting more are the seniors that are not going to get a chance to play in the tournament. Hofstra hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament in 19 years. Their two-best players are seniors. It’s not going to happen for them even though they earned it, and I can’t imagine what they’re going through.

Or what about the kids at Dayton, or San Diego State, or Baylor. Those programs had a chance to do something that they have never done before and may never be in a position to do again. We’re talking about No. 1 seeds. Final Four contenders. Teams that could have won the national title.

What about seniors like Cassius Winston or Udoka Azubuike? Or the fans that had invested hundreds if not thousands of their own dollars to attend these events?

It sucks.

But it’s what had to be done.

So forgive me if I spend the next six hours drinking beer and watching videos of Gus Johnson losing his mind on YouTube.