As Saturday dawned in Gainesville, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, in Evansville, Lubbock, Omaha and Washington, there was plenty of reason to be enthused about the day’s schedule. It turned out even better than anyone could have imagined. March 7, 2020, became the most glorious day in recent college basketball history.
This could be construed as faint praise, depending on how one defines recency. Because it could be said that recent college basketball history consists primarily of Nebraska’s Fred Hoiberg appearing visibly ill along the Cornhuskers’ bench during the Big Ten Tournament, St. John’s and Creighton playing a half in the Big East at Madison Square Garden and then being sent home, 20 conference tournaments canceled before their conclusion and the 2020 NCAA Tournament abandoned even before a field was selected.
This is not just a matter, though, of juxtaposing a single, frenetic day of delightful college basketball action against the most vacant March since the 1930s.
That magnificent Saturday contained more than a dozen hours of furious activity that got millions off their arena seats, couches and barstools and portended a glorious 2020 NCAA Tournament. So much joy exploded from coast to coast — with the coronavirus contagion seeming a million miles away even though it was all the while beating down our doors.
Had there been no pandemic, or if the one that arrived were not continuing to rage, the 2020-21 college basketball season would have opened tonight with the Champions Classic and other top games. Instead, we continue to wait a couple of more weeks for what one hopes will be a season that ends in more customary fashion.
We can remember, in the meantime, that fabulous Saturday. It was a carnival of buzzer-beaters being swished, conference championships being claimed, NCAA Tournament bids being secured. It was an indelible reminder of everything we genuinely adore about this sport, even though much of its consequence was erased in a matter of days.
This is the story of that day and its immediate aftermath, told through the experiences of those who made it so extraordinary, and, certainly not by choice, enduring.
The last long gameday
There were 94 Division I games scheduled for March 7, including early-round tournament games in eight conferences and championship games in the Mountain West (No. 2 seed Utah State vs. No. 1 San Diego State) and Ohio Valley (No. 2 Murray State vs. No. 1 Belmont).
Only two games involved ranked teams on both sides, but by then the unpredictable 2019-20 college basketball season had taught us that this was not a requirement for compelling action.
A three-game race for the Big East regular-season championship would be decided by the results of Villanova’s trip to Georgetown for a noon tipoff, and the Seton Hall at Creighton game that immediately followed. Villanova needed to win to have a chance, then Creighton to prevail at home for the Wildcats, Pirates and Blue Jays to share the title.
Wisconsin visited Indiana with a chance to clinch a share of the Big Ten title. A win meant the Badgers were free to celebrate, with Maryland and Michigan State owning the opportunity to join them the following day.
UCLA traveled across the Interstate 10 freeway to play rival Southern California; a victory for the Bruins would complete their turnaround from 8-9 and 1-3 in the Pacific-12 to no worse than a share of the league title.
Cincinnati, which had played four overtime games in its previous seven games and gone 4-3 in that stretch, was fighting to compile an NCAA Tournament-worthy resume while also needing a victory for a shot at the American Athletic Conference title.
Kentucky and Kansas had clinched league titles. But KU was playing to secure the No. 1 regular-season ranking in its challenging trip to Texas Tech. On the road at Florida, UK was attempting to climb the NCAA Tournament bracket seeding charts and playing without regular point guard Ashton Hagans. He had struggled so visibility in a weeknight loss at Tennessee — and with the social-media aftermath of that upset — he stayed home for personal reasons while promising to return for the SEC Tournament.
It was such a loaded day of hoops that Duke vs. North Carolina, the game’s showpiece rivalry but this time involving a sub-.500 Tar Heels squad, barely was on the undercard.
Also: It seemed inconsequential at the time, perhaps an isolated issue, but Chicago State had called off its two-game road trip to Seattle and Utah Valley State, and UMKC declined to travel to Seattle, because of concerns about the coronavirus in that city. At that point, 10 of the 11 deaths attributed to the disease had occurred in Washington. So there were two fewer games than planned.
The morning drive
CRAIG SMITH, Utah State Aggies head coach: Our day started the night before, because we had film session until about 1 in the morning. Our game started at 8:30 on the semifinal night, and it was a long game. By the time we got back to the hotel, it was late. That’s always a conundrum as a coach: Do you meet the night before, or do you get them up a little earlier the next day? We asked our upperclassmen, the captains — they preferred the night before, so they could sleep in a little bit.
SAM MERRILL, Utah State senior wing: Our schedule was pretty grueling for us, as the 2 seed. I probably didn’t fall asleep until 3, so I was running on about 5 hours. I personally felt a sense of urgency, and almost desperation, because we had no idea if we going to make the NCAA Tournament if we didn’t win that game.
GREG GARD, Wisconsin Badgers head coach: The virus was not really in your head. You heard about it, but it felt like it was on the other side of the world and it was going to stay there. So, yeah, you really never thought about it. We had been on such a roll to put ourselves in a position to go to Indiana and win, and we are Big Ten champs. Everything was focused on that.
BRAD DAVISON, Wisconsin Badgers junior guard: There was a great sense of anticipation. One of the biggest reasons of why you go to Wisconsin is to compete in the Big Ten, for a Big Ten title. So we knew what we were playing for. A lot of people were keeping to themselves, kind of in their own little bubble to stay locked in and ready to go.
JAY WRIGHT, Villanova Wildcats head coach: Regular-season championships mean more to us than anything. We try to talk about consistency and controlling what you can control, and that’s what the length of a season is. Everyone’s playing each other twice, so it’s fair. When you get into those one-and-done situations, anything can happen. We’ll take the accolades and the hits by what we do in tournaments, but internally we evaluate by how we perform over the length of the season.
MICK CRONIN, UCLA Bruins head coach: We were on such a run. It was hard to even describe the run we were on. I gave a speech to them the night before, thanking them. They had come so far. The guys had been beat up for two years. They’d been through three coaches. Playing at UCLA is great, but it also is high pressure. For them to band together to put that run together … from obscurity to playing for a league title. By then, the guys were so confident. It was like: We don’t lose anymore.
NICK MUSZYNSKI, Belmont Bears sophomore center: It was a pretty wild 48 hours, honestly. We played Friday night against Eastern Kentucky, and we played late, and we won kind of ugly. I didn’t particularly play well. We had a couple guys who shot it well and kind of kept us in it. Coming into Saturday, we had a consensus of: We didn’t play well, but we still won. It gave us a lot of confidence going into the championship game, sitting there as a team like: We haven’t even had that game yet.
CASEY ALEXANDER, Belmont Bears head coach: If there is such a thing as business as usual for a championship day, with the NCAA Tournament on the line, that’s really where we were. The way our league is played, we didn’t even know who our opponent was until practically midnight the night before, so we just tried to pack as much preparation as we could into that day to get ready for the game. Personally, that was maybe my sixth OVC championship game, so a lot of guys had been in that moment before. That settles the nerves quite a bit and allows you just to go out and play.
JOHN BRANNEN, Cincinnati Bearcats head coach: My dad had just passed away the week before. It was just a crazy weekend, just on a personal level. It was my dad’s funeral the next day, so I can’t really remember the details of basketball as well. We delayed the funeral because of me. The Catholic Church allowed me — they don’t do Sunday funerals, but they made an exception because of my schedule. The Temple game, I don’t even recall leading up to that.
The ball is tipped
Villanova-Georgetown and Wisconsin-Indiana are the first big games to commence. As the first half of each progresses, it appears one might be a blowout and the other, possibly, a minor upset.
Villanova dashes to a 17-2 lead against the struggling Hoyas, starting out 7-of-9 from the field, including 3-pointers by Justin Moore, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Saddiq Bey. But grad transfer point guard Terrell Allen settles the Hoyas and drags them back into the game.
JAY WRIGHT: We knew we had a tough opponent; us at Georgetown is always a tough game. It’s just one of those games. We knew we were playing our best basketball, had just played a great game on the road, and we were a young team that was getting better. But we came out on fire.
JERMAINE SAMUELS, Villanova junior forward: Their point guard, they were doing a really good job in their ball screens, and they were also getting stops. They were able to keep it real close and even took the lead at a certain point, where it looked like we weren’t going to win. We just stuck with each other and said: You know what? We’re going to keep playing the way we play, keep playing Villanova basketball until the clock hits zero.
The Badgers fall behind IU 20-13, with senior Devonte Green scoring 13 of the Hoosiers’ points. That is as good as it would get for the Hoosiers, but they still lead by three at halftime.
BRAD DAVISON: It was their Senior Night, and Devonte Green came out and had like 15 of their first however-many points. He was really hot, and we weathered the storm. We were feeling pretty good at halftime. We only had 20 minutes to go.
GREG GARD: I felt OK. We hadn’t played great and had chances to even be up if we would have functioned a little better offensively. I felt OK. We were within striking distance, and that’s where you want to be on the road. We were able to come from nine down in the second half. This group developed such an ownership mentality, such a toughness to them, and it really exuded itself, I think, in the last four or five minutes, as we made a run. There were three or four timeouts — I barely said a word. They completely owned the timeouts.
With 1:04 left at Capital One Arena, the Hoyas take a 69-65 lead on Allen’s 3-pointer. But two big plays by Robinson-Earl, a freshman, give Villanova the ball with a 2-point deficit in the final half-minute. Villanova’s initial plan for the possession does not work, so Robinson-Earl passes to Samuels on the left. Samuels launches a lefty drive, is bumped by Jamorko Pickett and, aware he’s been fouled, releases a right-handed scoop shot. It is swiped off the backboard by 6-11 Qudus Wahab. The goaltending call ties the game, and Samuels needs the free throw to put Nova up with 5.6 seconds left.
JERMAINE SAMUELS: I saw an angle, and I knew I could get the ball under him. I just had a feeling he was going to swipe down. He hit my arm. I just knew I had to get it up on the glass, because I saw the big man coming. I knew I’d have to shoot two free throws if I didn’t get the ball on the glass. That’s how Georgetown plays. They block everything. That’s me being conscious of how they go about their game.
JAY WRIGHT: We ran a play for Collin, and they shut it down. And we went into our end-of-the-shot clock, where somebody’s got to make a play. Jermaine just took it. We wanted him to take on that responsibility. He had the guts to go make that play. It was a really emotional, big play for us, and it was an emotional, big game.
JERMAINE SAMUELS: I’m not going to lie to you. I was like: Whoa, this is the game. But the No. 1 thing in my mind, no matter I make it or not, I knew we had to get a stop regardless. We were all so intense. The free throw carried a lot of weight, and finally seeing the buzzer go off and they didn’t hit the shot, all that weight dropped. It was a feeling I haven’t had before.
Meanwhile, Indiana leads Wisconsin by seven with 6:52 remaining, and it looks as though the surge that had carried the Badgers from 6-6 in the Big Ten to seven consecutive victories will not continue. But the Badgers make three of their next four shots, including an and-one by big man Micah Potter, to tie the game at 51 with 5:08 left. It does not seem the next basket will be decisive, but it is.
BRAD DAVISON: It was kind of like a loose ball. Micah dove on the floor and got it and kicked it out to Nate Reuvers, who I thought was going to shoot it with like three seconds on the shot-clock. But he actually passed it up and passed it to me. I was not really ready to shoot the ball, but I had to pull one out, and I missed it. I missed it pretty bad, thankfully, and it kind of went right into Micah’s arms. I relocated, and I knew: We call them dagger shots. Momentum-changing shots. I was confident in it. There was no hesitation. Thankfully it went in. We took the lead. And we never gave it up.
GREG GARD: I’ve been fortunate to be a part of a lot of championships. … We had never won on an opponent’s court to clinch. And with what this group had been through, I thought it was very fitting. Going back to Howard Moore’s car accident — what that group of players and our staff and our people, the immediate people around us — they had gone through all the heartache. Seeing the outcome of Howard’s heart attack in June. They had seen real-life adversity. So for us to win in that fashion, on the road, the neat part about it was the only people that were in that locker room were the exact same people who had gone through all the stuff we had gone through the last eight-nine months.
As Wisconsin and Villanova celebrate, the Kentucky Wildcats stumble into a deficit of 18 points with 11:48 remaining at Florida, after Andrew Nembhard’s 3-pointer. UK All-American guard Immanuel Quickley fouls out a couple of minutes later.
KEION BROOKS, Kentucky Wildcats freshman forward: We weren’t defending well. That’s really what it comes down to. At times, we struggled to get the best shot possible. They got into a pretty big lead, and they were whupping us pretty good.
JOHN CALIPARI, Kentucky Wildcats head coach: We had left Ashton back, so we were going in shorthanded. Immanuel Quickley was not playing well. Johnny Juzang, Keion Brooks, all of a sudden guys started playing, and we make a comeback. We were blocking, making shots, throwing stuff down.
KEION BROOKS: We came together and said we needed to start getting stops, because we were finding our groove offensively. We stopped fouling, and we got some stops. I could kind of tell that the pressure started to shift all on them. They had a big lead, and we were coming back. They started to take some rushed shots.
With a minute left, Brooks nails a jumper to cut the Gators’ lead to a point. The Wildcats defense forces a shot-clock violation, and they have 27 seconds to conjure a game-winner. Forward EJ Montgomery becomes the hero with only his second basket.
KEION BROOKS: Out of the timeout, we’re walking to the huddle, Cal looks at the players there for two or three seconds, he looks at me and he said, “We’re going at you, kid.” I’m like, “Well, OK, let’s go.” The point guard tried to front me, and I caught it toward the baseline. It still bothers me to this day; I should have dunked it. I ended up missing on the front of the rim. I jumped and got my hand on it, and then EJ came and made sure the ball went in.
SAM MERRILL: I do remember watching that. The only reason I would have watched is because we played Florida and we beat Florida, so we needed Florida to be good for our NCAA potential. So we were upset they lost that game.
JOHN CALIPARI: We went in that locker room, and I looked at my staff, and I said, “We’ve got a chance to win the whole thing now.” Because we did it without Ashton, so now he knows. And the guys know. So let’s say he gets in foul trouble or doesn’t play well — we’re fine. Second thing is, we built our bench even deeper.
In Lubbock, top-ranked Kansas labors to generate a functional attack against the Texas Tech D — which is becoming a familiar story in college hoops — and is stuck in a tie game with 2:16 left after the Red Raiders’ T.J. Holyfield nails a 3-pointer off a pass from Kyler Edwards. Center Udoka Azubuike’s dunk, though, puts KU ahead for good with 1:50 remaining.
MARCUS GARRETT, Kansas Jayhawks junior guard: We actually didn’t play that well. That’s when we kind of figured we were the best team, because at no point did we think we could really lose the game. We felt like we’d been there before. There had been a lot of close games the year before, and we’d lost all those road games in the Big 12. That was a big thing we focused on. We knew what it took to win the game. We knew we’d have to go to another gear if we really wanted to make a run.
The Creighton-Seton Hall game in Omaha turns out not to be as tight as many others on this day, although its result creates plenty of traffic on top of the Big East standings. As the Blue Jays break from a 32-all halftime tie to a 17-point victory, the Wildcats watch on television while riding the bus back to the Philadelphia suburbs and realize they are co-champs.
JAY WRIGHT: We were feeling great about winning four of five on the road, how Jermaine stepped up at the end. We’re looking at the TV like, “Wow, Creighton is looking good.” We were so excited coming home.
For much of the nation, this delirious afternoon is approaching the dinner hour. In the Pacific time zone, they’re only just finishing lunch as USC and UCLA play a game starving for baskets but appetizing in its intensity.
ANDY ENFIELD, Southern California head coach: The defense was at an exceptional level for both teams. It didn’t surprise me the game ended up being 54-52. Both teams were playing so well and so hard defensively.
MICK CRONIN: We had a few too many turnovers. When you can’t score, when it becomes a rock fight because two teams know each other so well, you’ve got to get shots off so you got the chance to rebound and get fouled.
USC holds a one-point lead into the final 10 seconds, but Tyger Campbell’s missed shot for the Bruins is grabbed by teammate Cody Riley, who then is fouled and hits two free throws for a 52-51 lead with nine seconds left. The Trojans have missed 30 shots to that point but need only one bucket to win. They inbound to senior guard Jonah Mathews, who dribbles to a high ball screen that forces 6-10 Jonah Hill to switch onto him. Mathews clears space with a jab dribble forward, then steps back. His shot barely touches the net.
MICK CRONIN: The way we shot the ball that day, we should have got beat by 10 or 15. After the game, it was their first time seeing me telling them how proud I was after a loss. The kids were despondent. I had two friends from Cincinnati visiting, Dean Gregory and Mike McCall. I said to them, “I know I’ve got the program turned around.” They said: How do you know? I told them, “I tried to cheer them up, and they weren’t having it.”
The first bids are won
San Diego State is battling to stay in the picture for a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed. Utah State is desperate merely to assure its entry. After starting the year ranked No. 17 by The Associated Press, the Aggies had lost four of their first five Mountain West games, with center Neemias Queta bothered by a knee injury and missing 11 games. At 25-8, with two losses against the Aztecs, they probably need to earn the MWC’s bid by winning the title game in Las Vegas.
CRAIG SMITH: It was a great season … but we had to endure a lot. We had an irrational rash of injuries. We didn’t have a ton of guys miss a ton of games besides Queta, but Sam Merrill was hurt a good portion of the year with mainly ankle issues. Justin Bean had an ankle and a broken nose. We had a 7-foot-3 guy have an appendectomy; an appendectomy for a 7-3 guy isn’t what it is for you or me. But we knew we were turning a corner.
SAM MERRILL: It was not the prettiest game ever, but it was one of the funnest games I’ve ever played in. We both were playing with a great sense of urgency. We got a little bit of a lead, got up four with about five minutes left, so at that point you’re just really trying to hold on. You get in that situation and you think: I need to be good here.
The Aggies maintain their edge from the 6:37 mark until 1:06 remains, when SDSU All-American Malachi Flynn nails a 3-pointer to put his team ahead by one. Immediately after, though, Merrill goes to the foul line with a chance to put Utah State ahead. The first of his two free throws bounces off the rim. It is the only time in his career he has missed inside the final minute.
SAM MERRILL: I almost started laughing after I missed it. Because I knew I wasn’t going to miss two. I don’t know if there were nerves; I don’t think so. I was just thinking: Really, of all the times you could miss a free throw in this situation, you do it now? We called a timeout, and I literally said, “Guys, my bad, let’s get a stop and I’ll win this game.”
With the game tied and 39 seconds left, thus no chance to hold for the final shot, the Aztecs move quickly. Flynn attempts a 3 after just seven seconds. When it misses, Merrill grabs the rebound. This is his chance to deliver on a promise.
CRAIG SMITH: Sam has really improved his ability to make a one-on-one play. So in that moment, you just feel like it’s destiny. I know how cheesy that can sound, but you have a young man whose parents went to school at Utah State. Sam was coming to Utah State games since he was a young boy. And it was always his dream to play for Utah State. It wasn’t to play at Duke or UCLA.
SAM MERRILL: It was almost like house money. Let’s get a good shot. If it goes in, great. If not, we’ll go to overtime. Right after it hit, I was actually upset with myself. I shot it too early. There were 2 1/2 seconds left. I had lost a state semifinal game in high school on a halfcourt buzzer beater. I was nervous they were going to hit a shot. When we did get that last stop, it was almost a sense of relief. We had expected to make the NCAA Tournament, and for the second half of the year, we didn’t know if it was going to happen.
At the Ford Center in Evansville, Ind., Belmont and Murray State meet for the Ohio Valley title for the third consecutive season and the fifth time in eight years. Each received an NCAA bid in 2019, but they understand this time there will be no at-large for the OVC.
TYLER SCANLON, Belmont Bears senior guard: That was one of the coolest atmospheres I’d ever been in. There were 8 or 9,000 people there, and 7,500 of them were Murray fans. It was so much fun to play in.
NICK MUSZYNSKI: I remember toward the end of the game, it seemed like — and this is honestly where our team is the best — it seemed like every possession had such magnitude. For the last 3 1/2 minutes, all five of our guys — and I’m sure their guys were, too — just having that feeling of intensity and immense focus. Like, this is it: One mistake can cost you a trip. Every pass had to be made from the right hand to the right hand.
Belmont trails with 2:25 left, 73-69, but Alexander calls for Muszynski to post up on consecutive trips. His layup and then 3-point play give the Bears a 74-73 lead. With 19 seconds left, still down a point, Murray calls timeout. Tevin Brown advances the ball, is met by defender Michael Benkert at the top of the key, then changes direction to his left with a behind-the-back dribble. Benkert accidentally trips him, and Brown converts both foul shots for a one-point lead.
CASEY ALEXANDER: We have a play we actually call “Special” we’re only going to run in moments like that. We called timeout in the frontcourt intentionally to get the ball from side out-of-bounds to run that play. Little did I know, we wouldn’t be able to get the ball in bounds. So we had to call time again.
TYLER SCANLON: For a play we ran like six or seven times during the course of the year, we probably practiced it 500 times. I had gotten in trouble a few times. I would do the back-cut, and I’d catch it, and I’d be afraid of getting my shot blocked so I’d pass. Coach Alexander would always pull me out: Tyler, you’ve got to shoot the ball, the play is drawn up for you. So when he called that play, I was like: No matter what, I am shooting this. Honestly, the most impressive part of the play was the pass (from Adam Kunkel): a one-handled, lefthand pass off the dribble between defenders. At that point, all I had to do was make a layup.
NICK MUSZYNSKI: I felt like we were on top of a mountain. We hadn’t won the tournament since 2015. Seeing that finally come true, it’s one of the best moments I’ve ever had as a basketball player.
The buzzer is busy in Cincy
As the season advanced toward its final weekend, both the Cincinnati Bearcats and Xavier Musketeers stood squarely on the NCAA bubble, but their circumstances reflected differences in conference affiliation. If UC could win its game against Temple and have Wichita State win at home against Tulsa, on the day of John Brannen Sr.’s funeral, the Bearcats would share the American regular-season title. XU, in the more powerful Big East, needed to beat rival Butler at home to earn a bye through the first round of the Big East Tournament.
JOHN BRANNEN: I got a lot of, from the fan base and the local media: How is he coaching? Your team is your second family. … I wanted to be around them. The game was a bit of a fog.
Less than five miles up Interstate 71, Xavier and Butler tip off a half-hour later at the Cintas Center. The Bulldogs build a two-point halftime lead and stretch that to nine by the 12:03 mark, but the game is not over.
LaVALL JORDAN, Butler Bulldogs head coach: We were never too far away from them, and then down in that last eight minutes it was just back and forth, play after play.
With senior Tre Scott struggling, Cincinnati falls into an 11-point deficit early in the second half, and that’s still the margin with 8:24 left. Needing some source — any source — of offense, the Bearcats find it in a most unlikely place: sophomore forward Mamadou Diarra, who hasn’t once scored in double figures. His layup launches a 16-4 surge that puts UC ahead, and he contributes a 3-pointer and free throw in that stretch and 12 points for the game. The Bearcats lead by two with a minute left on star Jarron Cumberland’s drive. But when Temple’s J.P. Moorman strikes from deep with 11 seconds left, the Bearcats are down a point.
JOHN BRANNEN: I just remember us playing awful. It was just an ugly game. We scored 17 points in the first half! Tre had played his worst game of the year. It was Senior Night, Tre was really emotional the whole game, just wasn’t himself. We didn’t call timeout, we advanced it, Jarron went downhill and got a good look. Like Allen Iverson used to do, threw it up, two guys came to block it and Tre came from the other side to tip it in. I remember a little more clearly the next day, which was the funeral, constantly getting updates on the Wichita State-Tulsa game.
MICK CRONIN: That was a great way for Tre to end the season. I was so happy for him.
The Xavier-Butler game lasts deep into the night. Even without overtime, it takes nearly 2 1/2 hours to play, and as it continues it seems to become a one-on-one battle between Xavier’s Naji Marshall and Butler’s Kamar Baldwin, both first-team All-Big East selections. In the final two minutes, no one else scores. And when Marshall converts a 3-point play with eight seconds left — earned on a foul by Baldwin — it looks like the Musketeers have the win they need.
KAMAR BALDWIN, Butler senior guard: I was kind of upset with myself that I let him get the basket and fouled him, but it was next-play mentality. We knew exactly what to run. It was just like another practice. We just ran it to perfection. Bryce Nze gave me two screens, because Marshall went under the first one, and then he gave me the second one and it gave me time to get closer. I got a clean shot off, and I was lucky enough for it to go in and the time to run out.
LaVALL JORDAN: I thought he might go to the basket, but knowing Kamar, going for the walk-off was something — you draw those up in your dreams.
The dream begins to fade
CRAIG SMITH: We do the postgame interviews, and it’s literally, totally, just euphoric. But at the very end of that interview, a reporter asked a question about coronavirus. Sometimes as a player or coach, you get into that cocoon a little bit, at least I do. I kind of get into a bubble where I really don’t pay a lot of attention to what’s going on. So I hadn’t heard a whole lot about the coronavirus, and she asked: What will it be like to play in the NCAA Tournament with no fans, if that happens? We all kind of giggled it off. In hindsight, I probably look like a fool. I really didn’t understand it.
MICK CRONIN: My sister is the principal at Summit Country Day. I had talked to her that week, asked for her thoughts. People she went to Northwestern with, and one of her friends in some government position told her: Be ready; you may have to deal with it. She said that to me: You guys could be in jeopardy.
CASEY ALEXANDER: The OVC is one of the first leagues to have our qualifier, and that usually gives us a good week to enjoy the spotlight. That part’s fun. I think when we played Saturday, I wouldn’t have given you a 1 percent chance we wouldn’t play the NCAA Tournament. And then Sunday rolled around, and it was about 5 percent. Monday rolled around, and it was about 20 percent, and Tuesday rolled around, and it was about 50 percent.
ANDY ENFIELD: We attended the (Pac-12 tournament) games on the Wednesday night. We had a bye, so we played the winner of the Washington-Arizona game. Our staff, and a lot of our players, went to that game just to get a feel for the arena and watch the teams. That evening, the Big Ten said they were going to play with no fans. The Pac-12 followed. So our director of operations was trying to coordinate a ticket list, to see how many family members of our players or our staff, how many we could get into the game.
The bubble bursts
Exactly a week before Selection Sunday, Maryland comfortably takes care of Michigan, and Michigan State handles Ohio State, creating a three-way tie for the Big Ten championship. The only drama in all that is whether Spartans coach Tom Izzo will get senior star Cassius Winston out of the game in time for him to do the customary kiss of the Spartan logo at midcourt in the Breslin Center. (He did).
Wichita State easily beats Tulsa to give Cincinnati what it needs for a share of the AAC title. Brannen gets score updates during the course of his father’s funeral. Bradley easily wins the Missouri Valley’s automatic bid. Liberty does the same in the Atlantic Sun. On Tuesday, when the Ivy League presidents announce that they are canceling their conference tournament, it seems to be something of an overreaction, as well as a concession that they never really loved staging the event, anyway.
Then comes Wednesday, when the World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a pandemic, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tests positive for the virus and the NBA suspends its season, and Hoiberg is so visibly ill on the bench during the Big Ten Tournament’s first night that it’s feared he might have caught it. (He did not).
Nothing feels quite the same as Thursday dawns.
KEION BROOKS: When the Oklahoma City and Utah Jazz game was canceled, and we found out Rudy Gobert had the virus, that’s when I could kind of see, OK, things are probably not going to finish the way we expected. Things are probably going to get shut down.
JOHN CALIPARI: I wasn’t worried about the SEC Tournament being canceled. I was worried about the NCAA Tournament. As we bussed over to the gym for practice, and I’d heard what the NBA had done, I said: Guys, we’re going to prepare to play, but I’m not sure we’re going to play this tournament. But — we want to play that other tournament, so we’ve got to cross our fingers and pray that they don’t go down that chute that quick.
GREG GARD: I was probably naïve. I thought maybe we’ll delay or whatever. Your mind didn’t want to go to that finality, that we weren’t going to have an NCAA Tournament.
NICK MUSZYNSKI: We had a late lunch because we had practice like maybe 11 to 2. We had spent that day working out, getting ready, practicing. And we all go to lunch. It was such a random place to go with all the great food in Nashville, but we went to Applebee’s for half-price appetizers. And we’re watching “SportsCenter,” and all of a sudden, it just came on. I’m going in for some nachos, and I see phones, simultaneously, just blowing up. The NCAA Tournament’s canceled, and the people at Applebee’s are like: Wait, aren’t these jokers supposed to be going to that thing?
JAY WRIGHT: We’d just gotten off the bus from New York. The media were gathered at Villanova, and I was talking to them, and one of our assistants tapped me on the back and handed me a phone. I said: Guys, give me a second here. I’ve got to go in and talk to the team. I think our guys were in shock. Saddiq Bey was our most stoic, tough-minded person, and I always remember that he seemed the most crushed right at the moment. And I remembered that as we went through the process of him making the NBA Draft decision. I kept thinking back to the look on his face, like: That was my last college game.
JERMAINE SAMUELS: I broke down. I cried. It just happened so fast.
MARCUS GARRETT: I was in shock. We felt like we had the best shot to win, and we didn’t get to fulfill our dreams.
SAM MERRILL: I was on my way to practice when it happened. It was hard knowing that it was it for my college career. We sat there as a team. Coach Smith talked, and it was really emotional. He finished talking and asked if any of the players wanted to say anything. And no one did. Like, we were all just heartbroken about it.
JOHN CALIPARI: We got on the bus, and probably an hour outside of Nashville, I got up to the front of the bus and said: “They just canceled the NCAA Tournament, guys. I feel bad. I really thought we had something special going. Fate intervened, and we’re just going to have to deal with it. But it sucks.” I find out later, after we got back, they played pickup. Like it was the last one.
TYLER SCANLON: Looking around the country, I think we were one of 10 conferences that got to finish. To play the game that, at least for our conference, is most significant. We were fortunate enough we still got that experience. So many other teams didn’t even get that.
LaVALL JORDAN: Hey, if that’s the last thing we got to do together competitively, guys should be proud they were as present as they could be. Nobody was looking ahead and not fully having their attention on the moment they were in, being at Xavier. That’s something we try to do, but it’s hard to do. That’s something that defined that team.
GREG GARD: If this was going to be the end, we picked a hell of a way to go out.
ANDY ENFIELD: When we met in the lobby of our hotel, we did joke about that with Jonah Mathews and Nick Rakocevic; they were our two seniors. … Hey, if we’re going to end our season, especially for Jonah, what a last game and last shot to end your college basketball career. Even though we were all very disappointed, at least it brought a smile to Jonah, his family and everyone else’s face. If this is it, it’s about as good as it could be.
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