INDIANAPOLIS – It was a fist bargain college basketball got hold of last fall when faced with pandemic headwinds for one season. There would be games, the NCAA explained, because there had to be a path to the men’s tournament that the board could hardly afford to cancel for the second year in a row.
However, there would also be positive tests, breaks in play and schedules that were reconstructed during operation. Isolation and fear were part of the pact for four months.
However, the calculation is different now.
A positive test does not pause a season. it can end it.
That harsh reality fell victim to Saturday night when Virginia Commonwealth, the tenth-place team in the West Region, was amazingly eliminated from the tournament due to virus logs three hours before the scheduled start against Oregon.
VCU said in a statement Saturday night that it had received “multiple positive tests” in the past 48 hours.
“We are devastated for our players and coaches,” said Mike Rhoades, VCU’s coach, in the statement, which found the team had been tested daily for the past three weeks.
The NCAA’s coronavirus standards dictate that teams of at least five players can play who are not stopped by a positive test or contact tracing. With the 68-man tournament group locked on Tuesday night, the VCU’s departure – which required non-competition – means Oregon, the seventh seed in the West Region, will advance to the second round.
One team that dropped out of their program due to a virus test was a worst-case scenario for the NCAA, which generated $ 850 million in TV revenue from the tournament.
But it was a possibility that lurked in the background as the tournament began with four warm-up games on Thursday, followed by 32 first-round games on Friday and Saturday.
This is why so many of the teams that are here for the tournament, and those in Texas for the women’s tournament that starts on Sunday, have been especially nervous. Anything they endured to get that level carrot can be obliterated, or at least compromised with a single positive test.
Four teams here know that reality too well – Virginia, Kansas, Oklahoma and Georgia Tech arrived understaffed and played their most momentous games of the season with an extra load.
March 20, 2021, 6:58 p.m. ET
After Georgia Tech, which did without the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year, Moses Wright, was sent home on Friday from Loyola-Chicago, Kansas faced the same fate before rallying around the 14th seeded east Washington fend off.
The Jayhawks were without striker Jalen Wilson, their lead rebounder, and reserve Tristan Enaruna. And their center David McCormack, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, arrived in Indianapolis on Friday after testing positive 10 days earlier – a result that caused Kansas to abandon its conference tournament.
On Saturday night, the eighth Oklahoma had to compete with Missouri without De’Vion Harmon, his second best scorer. And Virginia, who flew to Indianapolis after a week of quarantine, wasn’t even sure it could play against the 13th seeded Ohio until hours before its game.
“It was a very scared thing,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, adding that he got up late at night and waited for the daily test results. “Here I get texts from the doctor and the trainer at 2am when the results come back and I am awake to record the texts.”
Some teams that were lucky or vigilant – or both – have paid a price in the past few weeks. Duke, who had abandoned the ACC tournament and thus ended his hopes for a place in the NCAA tournament, did so after his first positive test of the season. Other teams like Iona, which has 10 players and two coaches (including Rick Pitino) contracted the virus in the past three months, had fewer worries.
“I hate to say that – I don’t think breaks are good, but it can be a blessing that the breaks occur to better make sure you have a healthy NCAA tournament,” said Self.
The Jayhawks had many anxious moments against Eastern Washington. McCormack, who Self had hoped would limit himself to 7-10 minutes per half, started the game on the bench. Two minutes into the game, Self called for a time-out to send him into the game 9-0 down from Kansas.
The Jayhawks were down 10 in the second half and then won with a huge contribution from McCormack who scored 22 points, including the Jayhawks’ first 8 points after half time. Kansas will have to get past Southern California on Monday to get Wilson to return.
Self-stated, a team mantra is that they always have enough, but “I’m not sure if it should go deep into the tournament; We have to have our full number of people. “
That was a crushing lesson for Georgia Tech the day before.
Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner burst into tears in the locker room after his team lost 71:60 to Loyola-Chicago on Friday. The Yellow Jackets celebrated a championship at the Atlantic Coast Conference last Saturday night, sealing their first NCAA tournament place since 2010. The next day they learned that their Anker Wright had tested positive for the virus, making them the third team at the conference took a positive test. Wright traveled to Indianapolis separately this week but was in quarantine. His teammate, Jose Alvarado, wore his # 5 uniform.
“I can’t even express the pressure and swinging from high to low. It was overwhelming at times because you didn’t… ”Pastner said in a waning voice.
“Do you know how sick I felt for Moses Wright not being able to play today? Thank God, of course, everything is fine. It’s just that he’s losing this opportunity, ”he said.
The yellow jackets shot well against the nation’s top defenses and were supported 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 as careful of everything we can this year,” said Pastner. “I can’t describe the pressure I’ve felt almost every day since November, the pressure I felt every time we took a test because you just don’t know. One positive could blow you away. “
And on Saturday evening, three days after the start of a 19-day tournament, the time had come.
Alan Blinder reported from Atlanta.