KANSAS CITY, Mo. — March Madness is over because of the novel coronavirus.
Less than an hour before tipoff Thursday, Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte called Shaka Smart, who was in the Sprint Center locker room. The Longhorns’ coach then gave his lieutenant Cody Hatt unmistakable instructions: Get our players off the court. The same scenario played out in Texas Tech’s locker room, too.
So with about 45 minutes remaining on the pre-game clock, the Longhorns and Red Raiders both scurried off as league officials canceled the Big 12 tournament.
By mid-afternoon, the college basketball season was officially over, too. In an unprecedented move, the NCAA announced it was canceling the annual NCAA Tournament as well as all remaining winter and spring championships.
NCAA president Mark Emmert came under scrutiny for delaying a decision that would ultimately rock the American sports world. In the end, the NCAA erred on the side of public health.
“This decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to the spread to the pandemic, and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during this academic year given ongoing decisions by other entities,” the NCAA said in a statement.
There was hope the NCAA Tournament could continue with “limited fan attendance,” as several conferences tried to do this week. But that plan became unworkable at the conference level as leagues began canceling their events like dominos.
Just as the NCAA decision became public, the Big 12 announced it was suspending all regular-season athletic competition, on- and off-campus recruiting activities and practices until March 29. Texas was scheduled to start spring football practice on March 24.
“We have obviously canceled the tournament,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said at an 11 a.m. press conference. When the Kansas City mayor declared a local state of emergency, “it hastened our discussions,” he said.
As Bowlsby spoke, the Longhorns were already back in their locker room, packing up and trying to get a flight back to Austin. A UT spokesman said the top priority was to get the men’s and women’s athletes back to Austin as soon as possible. If coaches and support staff had to wait for a second plane, so be it.
The Longhorns, both the men and women, and a large portion of the travel party left Kansas City for Austin on a charter plane at 3:30 p.m.
Bowlsby said there was a collective sense of sadness among the league’s athletic directors when they met to discuss the decision. “I feel good we’ve made the right decision for the right reasons, but I really have a sense of loss,” he said.
Dozens of Texas and Tech band members and cheerleaders who rode a bus all the way to Kansas City were already on their way back home. The UT and Tech radio crews started packing up immediately, as they didn’t want to miss the charter plane home.
The Texas men’s team does not have any seniors, so the entire team will get another chance next season. The cancellation had to be difficult for Andrew Jones, the UT guard who battled leukemia and was anxious to play in his first Big 12 tournament since 2017.
The UT women’s team has five seniors who saw their seasons come to an abrupt and likely sudden end.
Sports in the United States came to a total stand-still on Thursday. The NBA, NHL and MLS all suspended activities. Major League Baseball pushed back its season start by two weeks. The NFL canceled its spring meetings. Colleges began making various announcements about spring sports cancellations over coronavirus fears.
Texas announced late Wednesday that fans would not be allowed at attend home events until March 22. The next UT sport on the calendar was a weekend baseball series against New Mexico. But that became moot as the Mountain West conference stepped in Thursday and canceled all sporting events.
“We have canceled all athletic travel indefinitely,” Kansas athletic director Jeff Long said in a statement. “In addition, all home and away athletics events have been suspended indefinitely.”
Texas officials also announced that all events at the Erwin Center were postponed indefinitely. That included Thursday night’s Chris Stapleton concert. Ticket holders were to be contacted about the postponements.
Big 12 athletic directors discussed spring sports, including spring football, during a Thursday afternoon conference call. But the immediate questions focused on basketball and the NCAA Tournament.
Kansas hit the pause button, and so did Duke. Having a tournament without the NCAA’s two most famous teams seemed rather daunting. Duke athletic director Kevin White is also the NCAA Tournament selection committee chairman.
Logistically, moving the NCAA Tournament back would’ve been a nightmare. It’s doubtful the chosen eight subregional locations could’ve have juggled new facility dates. CBS, which pays the NCAA billions in rights fees, wasn’t going to have the tournament infringe on its coverage of The Masters, either.
All major conferences were taking their cues partly from the NBA, which suspended its season Wednesday night in the wake of a Utah Jazz player testing positive for coronavirus. His teammate was diagnosed on Thursday.
“We certainly were monitoring what the NBA was doing, and there was a lot of noise around what they were possibly going to do,” Bowlsby said. “When they ended up with the positive test, it made their path clear.”
Where this goes now is murky, though.
Reporters at Sprint Center were told services would stop at 2:30 p.m. Walking out the building, a bearded security guard stood at the locker room tunnel and waved.
“Take care,” he said, “hope to see you next year.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email email@example.com.
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