By Ralph D. Russo Associated Press
March Madness came to a screeching halt before a bracket could even be filled out.
The NCAA canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments Thursday because of the spread of coronavirus, putting an abrupt end to the season less than a month before champions were to be crowned.
The unprecedented move comes a day after the NCAA announced the games that were scheduled to start next week would go on, but played in mostly empty arenas. That plan was scrapped as every major American sports league from the NBA to MLB put the brakes on its season due to concerns about the pandemic.
“This decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to the spread of the pandemic and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during the academic year given the ongoing decisions by other entities,” the NCAA said in statement.
The NCAA canceled championships in every spring sport, which include hockey, baseball and lacrosse.
The stunning end to the major college basketball season came about four hours after a frantic morning when conference tournaments around the country came to a sudden stop. Moments away from tipoff at some arenas, and minutes apart, each Power Five conference – the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences – canceled its remaining games.
At Madison Square Garden in New York, the Big East game between Creighton and St. John’s did start, but at halftime the conference called off that game and all the rest. Turns out that was the last Division I basketball to be played this season.
“This has been the most extraordinary stretch of days I’ve ever had or ever seen in my 30-plus years of working in the sports business,” Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman said.
Smaller conferences followed suit, shutting down their tournaments, and within a few hours 58 men’s games scheduled in 16 conferences had been canceled.
Then the conferences began shutting down all athletic activities, for at least a few weeks like the SEC, or indefinitely like the ACC.
A few hours later, the NCAA put an end to it all.
“So you telling me I transferred to not play in the tournament,“ tweeted Gonzaga point guard Ryan Woolridge, a graduate transfer from North Texas. Gonzaga was expected to be a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed and play a possible second-round game in its home city of Spokane.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the virus.
According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.
The NCAA men’s basketball tournament has been played every year since 1939 when Oregon won the championship in Evanston, Illinois. It has grown through the years, both in size and stature. The three-week tournament generates almost a billion dollars in revenue each year for the NCAA and its hundreds of member schools. Most of the money comes from a television contract with CBS and Turner that pays the NCAA almost $800 million annually. Earlier this week, NCAA President Mark Emmert told The Associated Press that the NCAA had insurance to cover a business stoppage but gave no details.
The men’s tournament is now one of the biggest events in American sports, a basketball marathon of buzzer-beaters, upsets and thrills involving 68 teams from schools big and small.
“While we are obviously disappointed that our season has ended abruptly, we also recognize that this decision was made for a greater good,” said coach Casey Alexander, who led Belmont, a private university with 6,000 students in Nashville, Tennessee, to the Ohio Valley Conference championship and a spot in the NCAA Tournament earlier this week.
The field for the men’s tournament was scheduled to be announced Sunday, creating the famous bracket sports fans obsess over in office pools and at sportsbooks.
“I respect the NCAA’s decision to put everyone’s safety first,” Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley tweeted. “That said, every team deserves recognition for their season’s success. Brackets should still be announced on Selection Sunday.”
The 64-team women’s field was to be revealed Monday. The NCAA women’s tournament began in 1982 and it, too, has become a big event, raising the profile of the sport.
“I’m disappointed, but I totally understand. I really feel for the senior student-athletes; every student athlete, but particularly the seniors because this is their last chance for the fans,” said Oregon women’s coach Kelly Graves, whose team would have entered the tournament as one of the favorites to reach the Final Four in New Orleans. “There’s something more important than the games going on. I’ve kind of come to grips with that a little more than a few hours ago.”
Games would have started on the men’s side on Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio, before spreading out to eight sites from coast-to-coast from next Thursday through Sunday. The women’s tournament was scheduled to begin March 20, with first- and second-round games to be played at 16 sites on or near the campuses of the top teams.
For Baylor, the potential was there for two national championships. The Bears are ranked fifth in the latest men’s AP Top 25 and the women’s team is No. 2 and the defending NCAA champs.
“We’ve got some great kids and they’re handling it really well, but some of our seniors are really distraught,” Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades said. “This was their last shot.”
The men’s Final Four was to be played April 4 and 6 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The semifinal and final games typically pack football stadiums, and after the champion is crowned the highlights of the year’s tournament are wrapped up into the “One Shining Moment” montage that has become a staple of CBS’ coverage.
Not this year.
March Madness has taken on a different meaning as sports have virtually shut down.
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, and AP Basketball Writer Doug Feinberg in New York contributed to this report.
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