It did not take long, after Duke was withdrawn from the ACC Tournament because of COVID-19 issues and ended its season 10 days ago, and then Virginia departed that same event and Kansas bused back to Lawrence rather than stay in Kansas City and contest the Big 12 quarterfinals, for the public carping to begin about the wisdom of contesting these championships in such proximity to March Madness.
Duke wasn’t going to make the NCAAs without completing that event and either achieving substantial success or perhaps even winning the automatic qualifier position accorded its champion. But UVa and KU were placed onto the 68-team bracket on Selection Sunday, and each of them contested their first-round games six days later.
One team that did not: the one from the conference that chose to reconfigure its schedule so its tournament could run a week earlier.
The Atlantic 10 in mid-January announced a plan to move its tournament from Brooklyn to two arenas in Richmond, Va. And then it chose to move up the timetable for the bulk of the event, with rounds through the semifinals contested March 3-6, a period previously designed as the final week of the regular season. The championship game was moved to March 14 on the campus of league member Dayton, just a short bus ride from the 2021 NCAA Tournament venue in Indianapolis. After St. Bonaventure defeated VCU in that game, earning the league’s automatic bid, VCU had a 19-7 record and was selected as an at-large entrant and assigned a No. 10 seed.
However, according to an athletic department release, VCU had multiple positive COVID-19 tests within its program in recent days. The Rams learned at 6:25 p.m. ET Saturday from NCAA vice president Dan Gavitt and men’s basketball committee chair Mitch Barnhart that their game with No. 7 seed Oregon would not go forward. In consultation with the Marion County (Ind.) health department, athletic director Ed McLaughlin said, the concern about multiple tests occurring within a short period of time led the committee to declare the game a no-contest and advance the Ducks to the second round.
A year ago, the Rams finished 18-13 and tied for eighth in the A-10. Their season ended as so many others did, with the conference tournament canceled just when the possibility of stealing an automatic bid beckoned most forcefully. In VCU’s case, though, it was more dramatic.
“We’ve had it happen to us now twice. Last year, we got pulled off the floor right before we were supposed to play UMass, and now we have another one ripped away from us like this,” McLaughlin told reporters on a call late Saturday. “It’s hard for our student-athletes. It’s hard for our coaches who’ve worked so hard and done everything we’ve asked them to do from a COVID protocol perspective.
“I want to make sure it’s clear: This isn’t something where our team broke protocol and did the wrong thing. We don’t know how this happened. But it certainly wasn’t because of bad behavior on our side, whatsoever.
“It’s brutal. That’s the only way I can describe it. I’m heartbroken for our student-athletes. I’m heartbroken for our coaches.”
VCU had been hopeful to play the game because the NCAA has stated that any team with five eligible players could be available to compete. The school learned about the multiple positive tests within the previous 24 hours and dealt with the contact tracing process in the belief it might clear the Rams to take the court.
Rams coach Mike Rhoades told reporters he had tried to turn it into a motivational element, walking through the hallway on the team’s floor at the JW Marriott declaring the Rams “were like a wounded animal” and thus more dangerous.
“The guys wanted to play,” Rhoades said. “Part of me kept saying it’s going to happen. This just can’t happen two years in a row.
“Heartbreaking. This is what you dream of as a college player and a coach. To get it taken away like this is just a heartbreaking moment in their young lives.
“It’s not what you sign up for, right? Nobody. But in the last year, we’re talking about two basketball games. There’s been over 500,000 deaths in this country because of this virus. As devastated as we are over a basketball game — two of them, right? — there’s a lot of people have it worse than us.”
Rhoades told the story of how he spoke nearly a year ago with former Rams star Justin Tillman, now playing professionally in Israel, who lost both his parents to COVID.
“That was a lot harder talk than the one I just had,” Rhoades said.
He said he would not question the medical authorities who made this decision.
The NCAA has endeavored to guard as fiercely against the virus as possible to complete the tournament, hence the steps taken during the past week that led some competitors to complain: the isolation of each player, coach and staff member having his or her own room, the hotel food delivered to each floor to avoid congregating at meals, the testing that seems almost perpetual.
VCU’s experience demonstrates that all the second-guessing about how to stage the season, whether to play conference tournaments — the spread of the virus has been too unpredictable for such decisions to be infallible. The Rams did not have a single issue, no shutdown, through the course of its preseason practice or regular season. Until the worst possible time.
“In looking at it, I just shake my head. We did the right things all the way through,” McLaughlin said. “I wouldn’t do anything differently than we did it.
“I don’t know if it’s bad luck, or what it is. It’s just terrible, more than anything else. But I don’t think there’s anything we would change.”
Only the ending, if that were possible.