Editor’s Note: A year ago, Sports Capital Journalism Program student Dylan Hughes was assigned to cover the Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament. On the second scheduled day of the tournament, he covered the unprecedented cancellation of the conference tournament, followed by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament. As Indianapolis prepares to host the 2021 NCAA tournament, here is how the events developed a year ago this week.
By Dylan Hughes | @ByDylanHughes
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS – The National Collegiate Athletic Association reached the unprecedented decision to cancel its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments on Thursday in response to rapidly-growing concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
The men’s tournament, which has been played annually since 1939, continued uninterrupted throughout World War II and conducted a championship game hours after an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981. The women’s tournament has been held each year since 1982.
“This decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat,” a statement read, “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 this academic year given ongoing decisions by other entities.”
Earlier in the day, about 15 minutes before the second round of the Big Ten men’s tournament was scheduled to begin here, the conference announced that it would cancel the remainder of the tournament, effective immediately, due to the same concerns.
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said the decision was the result of an evaluation over the past six weeks with information from a recently-formed Infectious Disease Committee. “I spent a lot of time thinking through this,” he said during a press conference at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, “meditating on it, and really this morning praying on what is the right thing to do for the health and safety of our student-athletes…
“I think as I sit here today, in these kind of situations you can never overreact from a safety standpoint, and I think we needed to make sure we went to the highest level to give us a chance to deal with this acute problem.”
Warren said the decision was not driven by Wednesday’s declaration by the World Health Organization that the outbreak was a pandemic. “Whether they had used the word ‘pandemic’ or not, I still would have reached this decision,” Warren said. “I think the biggest thing is the uncertainty. I’m a big believer in asking a lot of questions, gathering information, and making decisions based upon the best information that I have. This is one of those situations that there were a lot of people who were telling me, ‘I don’t know.’ I get concerned when I hear, ‘I don’t know’ a few many times.
“I don’t want to have any regrets,” he went on. “I want to make sure as a conference we do the right things because if something had gone awry here, I don’t want to be in a position looking back, saying, ‘Only if we would have canceled this tournament.’”
The decisions came the day after the National Basketball Association suspended its season indefinitely following confirmation that Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the virus. The Utah Jazz, in a statement, acknowledged “one additional positive outcome for a Jazz player.” ESPN reported that the player is Donovan Mitchell.
On Thursday, within minutes, the Southeastern Conference, Big 12, Pacific-12 and American Athletic Conference announced the cancellation of their men’s tournaments. The Big East announced the cancellation of its tournament after Creighton and St. John’s completed a half at Madison Square Garden in New York. The National Hockey League announced on Thursday that it would pause its season. Major League Baseball suspended spring training games and delayed the start of its regular season by at least two weeks. Major League Soccer suspended play for a minimum of 30 days.
Later Thursday afternoon, the Big Ten added that it was canceling all competitions through the end of the academic year and declared a moratorium on all on- and off-campus recruiting for what it called “the forseeable future.”
Throughout the day, reactions combined disappointment and support. “This is an extraordinary moment in time,” Rutgers Director of Athletics Pat Hobbs said in a statement. “With each passing day, indeed, with each passing hour, we are reminded just how small our world is and how much we depend on each other in times of crisis. Sometimes we are called to make sacrifices, large and small. This is such a time.”
University of Iowa women’s coach Lisa Bluder said, “While we are tremendously disappointed, our prayers are with all those suffering from the coronavirus and for all those making decisions in how to best treat and contain the pandemic….It is a shocking and unprecedented way to end a season.”
IUPUI women’s coach Austin Parkinson, two days after his team qualified for its first NCAA tournament by winning the Horizon League championship game, tweeted: “My heart aches for our ladies after hearing the news of the NCAA tournament being canceled. Grateful we even got the chance to compete & win our 1st ever tournament title. Trophies are great but the journey with this group was even better! Salute to our senior leader [Holly Hoopingarner.]”
Shortly before the Big Ten announced its cancellation, players from Rutgers and Michigan were on the floor preparing for the second-round game scheduled to start just after noon. The conference had announced a day earlier that starting Thursday, attendance would be limited to “student-athletes, coaches, event staff, essential team and Conference staff, TV network partners, credentialed media, and immediate family members of the participating teams.”
The Rutgers and Michigan players left the floor and media members were instructed to exit the courtside seating area. Security personnel attempted to prevent media from taking pictures and videos of the floor and arena. A rack of basketballs, placed on a sideline at midcourt for the warmup, was wheeled off the floor. A public-address announcer, reading from a laptop computer he had been handed, repeated the official announcement, a voice booming in a nearly-empty arena.
“The Big Ten Conference announced today that it will be canceling the remainder of the Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament, effective immediately. The Big Ten Conference will use this time to work with the appropriate medical experts and institutional leadership to determine next steps for moving forward in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic. The main priority of the Big Ten Conference continues to be the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes, coaches, administrators, fans and media as we continue to monitor all developing and relevant information on the COVID-19 virus.”
The night before, during the second-round matchup between Indiana and Nebraska, Cornhuskers head coach Fred Hoiberg appeared ill as he sat on the bench. He left before the game concluded. Neither Hoiberg nor his players attended the post-game press conference, and security personnel prevented credentialed media from entering the corridor near the Nebraska locker room.
According to a statement from Nebraska, Hoiberg was taken to Sidney & Lois Eskenazi Hospital and diagnosed with influenza A, which the university categorized as a common cold. The statement went on to say that Hoiberg was released and returned to the team hotel.
The sight of Hoiberg’s struggle, observed by concerned reporters sitting close by and captured by television cameras during the game broadcast, provided a chilling reminder of the risks of transmission. Warren told reporters that Hoiberg’s illness was one of several factors that contributed to the decision.
“I feel confident that I would have come to the same decision this morning with or without that,” Warren said. “That was an element of it, but it was so much bigger than that. We needed to make sure we had the appropriate time to make the appropriate decisions.”
As the cancellation was announced, eight Big Ten teams were in varying stages of preparation for second round games. Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said his team had eaten breakfast and had gone through a 45-to-60-minute walkthrough before breaking for an hour.
Shortly after, Holtmann said, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith informed him of the decision.
“I think all of our players were in favor of playing,” Holtmann said, “but they were also leaning on us to lead them and guide them and make the right decision.”
“You don’t want a lot of people getting sick,” junior guard CJ Walker said. “I feel like that’s a smart thing to do with this virus going around as fast as it is. You got to make the smart decision for everybody, not just the athletes playing.”
Walker, who went to nearby Arsenal Technical High School, was disappointed he wouldn’t be able to play in his hometown.
“Being in my hometown, not being able to play, I think I have like 20-plus tickets for my family, so it’s disappointing not being able to play in front of them,” Walker said.
Two Buckeyes, seniors Andre Wesson and Danny Hummer, have played their last games of college basketball.
“I think the biggest thing is we made the right decision,” Warren said. “I feel very good with our decision. We have a fiduciary responsibility in the Big Ten to always show leadership especially in tough times. I think that’s something that we did today to do the right thing.”
After the abrupt end of his first men’s tournament as commissioner, Warren was asked if the conference had plans to crown a champion.
“As I sit here today,” he replied, “it is difficult to crown a champion if you don’t compete.”