By Will Hogsett | @WHHogsett
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS – On the last night of the college basketball season, Indiana University coach Archie Miller remembered how he delivered the information that shook the world of his players. “It was like telling them a family member was sick, or something happened to somebody,” Miller said. “Obviously, our guys are in tune with what’s going on with the virus. But when you say, ‘Fellas, you’ve got to hear this, but the NBA season has just been canceled,’ you see a bunch of young guys looking at you like, yeah, what we’ve been telling you is things are kind of serious.
“Go wash your hands,” he said. “Make sure you’re doing what you’re supposed to do right now.”
The intensified discussion of bracketology, a rite of conference tournament week that had inspired Miller’s indelicate references to Sesame Street while criticizing commentator Joe Lunardi of ESPN, had been temporarily forgotten.
“I think the big concern for us right now is the collegiate game,” Miller said. “I think we’re all sitting here teetering on worrying about not only the Big Ten tournament in the next 48 hours, but what happens after Sunday. So I think that’s obviously a little bit nerve-racking for a lot of people right now.”
Miller had been looking ahead to a second-round game Thursday night against Penn State, one more chance to improve his team’s resume and solidify a spot in next week’s NCAA tournament, his first as coach of the Hoosiers.
And then it was all gone: the game Thursday night, the tournament this week, and the one to follow. The coronavirus pandemic had caused the cancellation of the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments and every major conference tournament.
On the last night of the season there were no handshakes after Indiana’s 89-64 victory over Nebraska, its 20th victory, completed not long after Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg was forced to leave by an illness that at first appeared frightening.
As Hoiberg sat on the team’s bench, leaning forward and holding the back of his right hand against his forehead, the potential danger of transmission was there for a television audience to see.
It was right after the four-minute media timeout when Hoiberg realized he was unable to proceed. He was helped from the bench to the locker room after turning responsibility to his assistant coach, Doc Sadler.
Sadler remained in charge for the rest of the game, and was the man who gave Miller a congratulatory elbow bump. The Nebraska players were sent directly to the locker room. A person with knowledge of the situation, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Hoiberg was seen leaving the area in a wheelchair. The Omaha World-Herald was among the media outlets reporting that the team was quarantined in its dressing room until approximately midnight eastern time, when it returned to the team hotel.
Even after a university statement said that Hoiberg had been diagnosed with influenza A, the coach was criticized for coaching while ill under pandemic conditions.
“Please let it be known that I would never do anything that would put my team, family or anyone else in harm’s way,” Hoiberg tweeted Thursday morning at 9:24 a.m. eastern time. “I was feeling under the weather on Wednesday and we felt the right thing to do was to get checked by a tournament doctor prior to our game in the Big Ten tournament against Indiana. Once that medical official cleared me, I made a decision to coach my team. I would like to thank event staff for their care and professionalism. Also, thank you to everyone who has reached out for your support.
“This is a scary time for all of us,” he continued. “Let’s offer our thoughts and prayers directly to those affected with Coronavirus.”
At that point on Thursday morning, Big Ten fans were coping with the new reality that the games would go on without them.
One of the unhappy fans was Don Johnson, a lifelong Michigan State fan who lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Don had brought his family of six down to watch the tournament, and had purchased tickets for each session.
“I don’t get it,” Johnson said. “I don’t understand why they are doing it. It doesn’t make sense to me. I have the expense of a flight, $3,000 in tickets. I’d really be pissed if they didn’t give it back.”
Johnson matched the profile of many fans that entered Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Wednesday evening. One fan took a souvenir T-shirt to a cashier near the main entrance of the arena. He asked what the T-shirt cost, and was told the price was $32.
“I’ll give you $20 – cash – right now,” the fan said.
When the cashier repeated the price was $32, the fan said: “But there won’t be anybody here tomorrow to buy it.”
If the experience wasn’t frustrating for fans who drove here, it was frustrating for fans who had waited so long.
This week was supposed to be a grand homecoming for the Big Ten Tournament. It had been four years since the once bi-annual tournament had been held in Indiana, the state that grows basketball, four years of waiting for many people within the state.
For now, it appears they will have to wait some more.
“It’s really unfortunate for the city, really a bummer,” said Mike Splorer, a Wisconsin Badger fan from Appleton, Wisconsin. “Indianapolis is where the Big Ten tournament should be. It’s such a great area. We’re leaving tomorrow and I’m really bummed out about that. It is what it is. You have to do things for safety.”
On the last night of the season, Archie Miller appeared to understand how it was all about to end.
“When world experts start to recommend things,” he said, “you obviously better listen.”