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‘It’s devastating. ... My heart’s broken for these kids’: NCAA Tournament canceled due to spread of coronavirus

What seemed unthinkable earlier this week became a reality Thursday. That’s when the NCAA announced what seemed inevitable Wednesday night, that the NCAA Tournament has been canceled due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. 

Syracuse Orange head coach Jim Boeheim watches his team from midcourt as Syracuse practices at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 20, 2019 in preparation for the NCAA March Madness game with Baylor.
Syracuse Orange head coach Jim Boeheim watches his team from midcourt as Syracuse practices at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 20, 2019, in preparation for the NCAA March Madness game against Baylor.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

PROVO — There will be no Selection Sunday, no bracket-busting Cinderella stories, no buzzer-beaters, no Sweet 16, no Final Four, no cutting down the nets, no “One Shining Moment,” no national champion crowned.

No March Madness.

What seemed unthinkable earlier this week became a reality Thursday.

That’s when the NCAA announced what seemed inevitable Wednesday night, that the NCAA Basketball Tournament, which captivates the country during the month of March and has been played every year since 1939, has been canceled due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Amid the rampant fears and uncertainty, the NCAA also canceled the women’s tournament as well as all its winter and spring championships after other major sports leagues had arrived at the same decision.

”This decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to spread of 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.

The 68-team NCAA Tournament generates about a billion dollars in revenue each year for the NCAA and its hundreds of member institutions.

BYU coach Mark Pope was in a team meeting when the news of the tournament’s cancellation broke and he shared it with his players.

“It was just awful. We sat in a silent locker room with some tears for what was way too long,” Pope told reporters via video conference. ”The toughest thing for me is just our locker room was really hard today, as you can imagine. I think most of my thoughts are with my guys right now. It’s really hard. It’s devastating for them, especially my seniors. It’s excruciating for these guys and it’s hard for us. That’s our experience right now. If I could control everything in the world, we would find some way to have this tournament just because my heart’s broken for these kids.”

Last weekend, Utah State (26-8) earned the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament from the Mountain West Conference.

BYU, which jumped into the national rankings this season for the first time in nine years (currently No. 14 in this week’s Associated Press poll), was projected to be part of the field of 68 as well. The Cougars (24-8), who finished No. 9 in the NCAA’s NET rankings and was projected in as a No. 6 seed in ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s final projections Thursday, were set to play in their first NCAA Tournament in five years.

”I will tell you this — I believe this is true. There was nothing that could stop this team this year. It wasn’t suspensions or injuries or coaching changes or a roster overhaul or adversity or tough losses or an incredible tough difficult schedule,” Pope said. “The one thing that stopped this team is a pandemic. I do believe that this group was so committed that there was nothing that was going to stop them besides something otherworldly.”

The NCAA’s decision to cancel March Madness sparked shock and disappointment. Many coaches around the country reportedly were in favor of postponement rather than cancellation.

“I’m not an expert on the spread of disease and I’m certainly not an expert on COVID-19,” Pope said. “If it were at all possible to postpone with the potential of having it safely, I think there’s nobody in the world that wouldn’t be in support of that. But apparently the experts are saying that’s not possible or tenable.”

“I was hopeful for postponement, but we don’t have all of the facts,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl told ESPN.

“It’s a sad day,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few told ESPN. Few’s team won the West Coast Conference Tournament Tuesday and was projected as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Before the NCAA’s announcement Thursday, the Big Ten, Big 12, the Southeastern Conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference and Pac-12 tournaments were canceled not long before tipoff. Nineteen conference tournaments were canceled in all. The Big East tipped off its tournament Thursday and St. John’s was leading top-seeded Creighton 34-29 at the half when that tournament was canceled. It was the first of four quarterfinal games scheduled at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Thursday afternoon, programs like Duke and Kansas announced they were suspending all athletic competition for the foreseeable future.

On Wednesday, the NCAA took measures to address the coronavirus issue by announcing that the NCAA Tournament will be played “with only essential staff and limited family attendance.”

But the situation escalated Wednesday night when the NBA suspended its season after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert was found to have tested positive for coronavirus. On Thursday morning, Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell tested positive as well.

Eventually, the NCAA announced its unprecedented decision.

“We’re going to listen to the leadership and folks that have forgotten more than we know about the best way to attack this problem in our country and on our planet,” Pearl said.

Pearl added that his players were looking forward to playing in the SEC Tournament Thursday despite the coronavirus scare.

“I didn’t sense any concern from our guys about going in there and competing. They’re younger and living in the moment. Obviously, the first reaction was disappointment. Now, the focus is going to be for these student-athletes,” he said. “What’s next? What does it look like for my seniors, who have a chance to get drafted? My focus when I meet with my players is, our season is over. We were 25-6 and we finished second in this league and we probably would have been a No. 4 or 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But our time together is up. Where do we go from here? Maintaining a good standing in school, finishing up their degrees … and at the same time, we’ve got to stay healthy and stay safe.”

Former BYU player Luke Worthington, who is currently a grad assistant on the team, tweeted Thursday: “This is wrong. Shattering the dreams, hard work, and sacrifice of so many athletes. Especially seniors. My prayers are with these players that have given everything to have this moment. There has to be a better way. Postpone. Canceling is the easy way out; it is not the answer.”

There’s plenty of talk that seniors should be granted another year of eligibility if desired to compensate for the cancellation of the tournament.

“Seniors, if they want, should have another year,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton told reporters. “Special permission on scholarship numbers for an unprecedented circumstance. Next year only.”

Pope has seven seniors on his roster.

“I do have a large group of seniors on this team that have fought so hard for this and they still have a boatload of fight in them,” he said. ”If the NCAA saw fit to grant them another shot at this, which seems potentially like the only just or fair thing to do, then I think we’d have some guys that would be really, really excited about that.”