The most powerful conferences in college sports canceled their men’s basketball tournaments Thursday because of the coronavirus, putting in doubt this month’s NCAA Tournament — one of the biggest events on the American sports calendar.
Within minutes of each other, the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences announced the remainder of their tournaments would not be played. The Power Five leagues were preparing to play games in large arenas across the country, but with few people in the buildings.
From Boise, Idaho, to Birmingham, Alabama, one of the busiest college basketball days of the year — with teams fighting for championship trophies and automatic bids to the NCAA men’s and women’s tournaments — was being shut down. By mid-afternoon, 56 of 58 Division I men’s basketball games in 15 conferences scheduled for Thursday had been scrapped. Only the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, which had two games scheduled to be played in Norfolk, Virginia, on Thursday night had not yet been canceled.
Duke and Kansas, two of the country’s premier basketball schools, suspended all athletic competition involving their teams as college sports seemingly inched toward calling off March Madness.
“We make the best decisions possible with the best available information available. And the NCAA leadership is going to have to make that,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said. “I won’t judge right now what the outcome may be. There’s a pause. They’ve got some time candidly that I did not have today, and I would encourage them to use time to fully evaluate and be thoughtful and determine whether we might be able to go forward with any of the NCAA championships in this relatively short window.”
The NCAA said Wednesday that it planned to play its men’s and women’s tournament games that start next week with restricted access for the general public. Only essential staff and limited family members would be allowed to attend the games.
There was no immediate word from the NCAA if it also planned to scrap its celebrated men’s basketball tournament. The NCAA Tournament generates more than $900 million dollars for the association and its hundreds of member schools.
Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said Thursday it’s “hard to tell right now whether there will be an NCAA Tournament to play in” while announcing the Big 12 was closing up.
Texas and Texas Tech were going through pregame warmups and a handful of close family and friends were already in the stands at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri, when the teams were pulled off the court 40 minutes before tip-off.
“I think this is emblematic of how our country will be responding to a very unusual set of circumstances,” Bowlsby said. “I feel good that we made the right decision for the right reasons.”
Following the NCAA’s lead Wednesday, most college conferences announced that their basketball tournaments would be conducted with limited fan access the rest of the week. By Thursday, after the NBA suspended its season Wednesday night, they decided not to play at all.
Some took a little longer than others to pull the plug. The Big East started its second-round game between top-seeded Creighton and St. John’s at Madison Square Garden in New York and not until halftime was the tournament called off.
As the Bluejays and Red Storm were playing, a few subway stops away at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the Atlantic-10 was holding a news conference to call off its tournament.
Among the other conferences that canceled tournaments were: the American Athletic Conference in Fort Worth, Texas; Conference USA in Frisco, Texas; the Sun Belt in New Orleans; the Western Athletic Conference in Anaheim, California; the Big Sky in Boise; the Southwestern Athletic Conference in Birmingham; and the Mid-American Conference in Cleveland at an arena that is home to the NBA’s Cavaliers and is scheduled to be the site of NCAA men’s tournament games next week.
The semifinals and finals of the Sun Belt men’s and women’s tournaments were set to be played Saturday at the Smoothie King Center, where the NBA’s Pelicans play and the site of this year’s women’s Final Four.
The SEC also announced the suspension of regular-season competition for teams in all sports on campus as well as SEC championship events until March 30. The ACC suspended all athletic-related activities until further notice.
Sankey said SEC teams would be allowed to compete in the NCAA tournaments if they are played. Kansas also clarified that it would not keep its basketball teams out of the NCAAs.
Rick Fulkerson of Rockport, Indiana, the uncle of Tennessee junior forward John Fulkerson, planned to attend the SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
“It’s different and serious,” Rick Fulkerson said. “It’s common sense, probably.”
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.
The Big Ten was playing in Indianapolis; the Pac-12 in Las Vegas; and the ACC in Greensboro, North Carolina, at another arena set to host NCAA men’s first- and second-round games next week.
At the ACC, Florida State and Clemson were on the floor warming up for the first game of a scheduled quadruple-header when the announcement came down that no games would be played.
Top seed Florida State was then awarded the league’s championship trophy in an odd ceremony with Commissioner John Swofford in a mostly empty arena.
This was a very different kind of March Madness.