Indianapolis – It was a Faustian bargain that college basketball made last autumn when it plowed ahead with a season into the headwinds of the coronavirus pandemic. There would be games, college sports administrators declared, because there needed to be a path to the NCAA men’s tournament, which the governing body could ill afford to have canceled for the second year in a row.
But there would also be positive tests, pauses from play, and schedules reconstructed on the fly. Isolation and anxiety were part of the compact for four months.
The calculus, though, is different now.
A positive test won’t just pause a season; it can end it.
That cold reality found a victim Saturday night when Virginia Commonwealth, the 10th-seeded team in the West region, stunningly dropped out of the tournament just more than three hours before it was scheduled to tip off against Oregon because it had received “multiple positive tests” over the last 48 hours, the school said.
The NCAA’s coronavirus standards dictate that teams can play with at least five players who are not held out by either a positive test or contact tracing. VCU’s athletic director, Ed McLaughlin, said that the Rams had enough players but that health officials in Marion County, which includes Indianapolis, were concerned about the spate of positive tests in recent days. Since the 68-team tournament bracket was locked Tuesday night, VCU’s departure – which necessitated a no-contest – meant that Oregon, the seventh seed in the West Region, advanced to the second round.
“It was devastating,” said coach Mike Rhoades, whose team had been undergoing daily testing for the last three weeks, on a videoconference Saturday night. “It was heartbreaking, no dry eyes. This is what you dream of as a college player and a coach, and to get it taken away like this is just a heartbreaking moment in their young lives.”
A team dropping out because of a virus test within its program was among the worst-case scenarios for the NCAA, which stands to make $850 million in television revenue from the men’s tournament.
But it was a possibility that had lurked in the background as the tournament began with four play-in games Thursday followed by 32 first-round games Friday and Saturday.
It was why so many of the teams that are here for the tournament, and those in Texas for the women’s tournament that will begin Sunday, have been particularly on edge. All that they have endured to get to the carrot of this stage can be wiped out, or at least compromised, with a single positive test.
“It’s been a high anxiety thing,” Kansas coach Bill Self said, adding that he has been up late at night awaiting daily test results. “Here, I’m getting texts from the doc and the trainer at 2 a.m. when the results come back, and I’m awake ready to take the texts.”
VCU was the first team to be knocked from the tournament by the virus, but others have been hobbled by it. Virginia, Kansas, Oklahoma and Georgia Tech arrived undermanned, playing their most consequential games of the season with an added burden of a shortened roster.
After Georgia Tech, which was without Moses Wright, the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year, was sent home Friday by Loyola-Chicago, Kansas was in danger of suffering the same fate Saturday before it rallied to stave off 14th-seeded Eastern Washington.
The Jayhawks were without forward Jalen Wilson, their leading rebounder, and reserve Tristan Enaruna. And their center David McCormack, the Big 12 defensive player of the year, arrived in Indianapolis on Friday after he tested positive 10 days earlier — a result that led Kansas to drop out of its conference tournament.
On Saturday night, eighth-seeded Oklahoma squeaked past Missouri, 72-68, without De’Vion Harmon, its second-leading scorer. And Virginia, which flew to Indianapolis on Friday after a week under quarantine, was upset by 13th-seeded Ohio. The Cavaliers worked out only individually for the last eight days.
“Don’t know if we got tired down the stretch or felt some of the pressure,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said after his team couldn’t hold a seven-point second-half lead and shot uncharacteristically poorly on 3-pointers (8 for 31).
It was only during his news conference that Bennett learned of VCU not being able to play.
“Oh man,” he said, expressing sympathy for the Rams. “What is it with us Virginia schools?”
The virus may not only threaten the championship aspirations of all teams but also raise questions about the legitimacy of the tournament winner. Top-seeded Gonzaga, which is trying to become the first undefeated champion since Indiana in 1976, may have its path to the Final Four through the West eased with short-handed Oklahoma next, and third-seeded Kansas and fourth-seeded Virginia, the reigning champion, compromised or eliminated by the virus.
All teams, of course, have been trying to keep the virus at bay. Ironically, teams that have been fortunate or vigilant — or both — have in recent weeks been paying a price for their success. Duke, which dropped out of the ACC Tournament — ending its hopes of winning its way into the NCAA Tournament — did so after its first positive test of the season. Other teams, like Iona, which has had 10 players and two coaches (including Rick Pitino) contract the virus in the last three months, have had fewer worries.
VCU had been able to play 26 games with only a two-day interruption in early January.
“I hate to say this — I don’t think pauses are good, but they may be blessings in disguise that the pauses occur to better ensure you have a healthy NCAA Tournament,” Self said.
The Jayhawks had plenty of anxious moments against Eastern Washington. McCormack, whom Self had hoped to limit to 7-10 minutes per half, began the game on the bench. Two minutes into the game, Self called a timeout to send him into the game with Kansas down, 9-0.
The Jayhawks trailed by 10 in the second half, then won with an enormous contribution from McCormack, who scored 22 points, including the Jayhawks first eight points after halftime. Kansas will have to get past Southern California on Monday in order to get Wilson to return.
Self said a team mantra is that they always have enough, but “I’m not sure it is to go deep in the tournament; we need to have our full complement of guys.”
That was a crushing lesson for Georgia Tech the day before.
Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner was in tears in the locker room after his team’s 71-60 loss to Loyola-Chicago on Friday. The Yellow Jackets celebrated an Atlantic Coast Conference championship last Saturday night, sealing their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2010. The next day, they learned that their anchor, Wright, had tested positive for the virus, making them the third team in the conference to have a positive test. Wright traveled separately to Indianapolis this past week but was under quarantine. His teammate, Jose Alvarado, wore his No. 5 uniform.
“I can’t even express the pressure and the swing of high to low. It was overwhelming at times because you don’t…,” Pastner said, his voice trailing off.
“You know how sick I felt for Moses Wright, for him not to be able to play today? Obviously, thank God everything is OK. It’s just he loses that opportunity,” he said.
The Yellow Jackets shot well against the nation’s top defense and were bolstered by a contingent of boisterous students who had traveled from Atlanta. But it wasn’t enough.
“We have tried to do everything in our power to be so careful this year in everything that we can,” Pastner said. “The pressure that I felt almost every single day since November, I can’t describe the words, the pressure I felt every single time we took a test because you just don’t know. A positive could knock you out.”
And on Saturday night, three days into a 19-day tournament, it did.
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