A crucial moment: How the NCAA tried to save March Madness before it finally canceled

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NEW YORK – As it turned out, the NCAA basketball tournaments could not be held during their usual three-week window due to concerns about the corona virus. The organizers made an effort to work out a plan for a 16-team event to save the postseason over a long weekend.

NCAA vice president of men’s basketball, Dan Gavitt, told AP on Friday that he was considering ways to consolidate the tournament on Wednesday night after the NBA announced that one of its players had tested positive for the virus and the league had theirs Season.

But the reality was that even a shortened tournament could not be played without endangering people and the biggest event of the NCAA of the year was canceled on Thursday afternoon.

The basketball tournaments for men and women were canceled the day after the NCAA announced that it would play the games while restricting fan access.

“We spent a lot of time looking for alternative models very late on Wednesday night,” said Gavitt.

The next morning, Gavitt presented the idea to the men’s basketball selection committee. The women’s selection committee should meet later in the day.

Gavitt said the hope is to start playing games at the State Farm Arena in Atlanta on March 26. The city was to host the Final Four on April 4 and 6 at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The idea was for the selection committee to select the 16 best teams in the country regardless of the conference for participation. The first three rounds would have been played from March 26th to 28th with a championship game on March 30th. Gavitt believes eight or nine of the 32 Division I conferences could be represented.

“Anything but ideal. Far from being perfect, ”said Gavitt. “As imperfect as it was, it was one of the few sensible options that we thought we could at least maintain a certain level of tournaments in.”

Gavitt said there was hope that a full tournament could still be played early Thursday. As this faded, the idea of ​​holding a smaller event met with “mixed interest” at the committee.

“There were real concerns about not being inclusive enough with just 16 teams,” said Gavitt. “But the other thing that was in the minds of committee members at the time, and we saw this game at conference tournaments when an NBA player was infected, I think it was really well received by the players from whom, what I was I heard from trainers via SMS and anecdotal. “

NCAA President Mark Emmert said it was also not feasible to postpone the tournament indefinitely, hoping to play it later.

“The immediate logistical problems were that we had so many schools that were closed so quickly and at the moment,” said Emmert. “We had the reality that if you start a tournament in six weeks, some of our students are senior and have moved on. And if you look at the predictions of where the virus would be in six weeks, it looks worse, not better. “

Similar considerations were made for the cancellation of all spring championships, including sports such as baseball and softball with national tournaments, which are only beginning in two more months. It was a step that surprised some athletic administrators.

But with hundreds of schools closing the campus, some during the semester, and conferences where sporting activities were suspended, the NCAA could have had the opportunity to hold national sports championships where many of the usual participants were not field teams.

Emmert said he was open to rethinking the spring championships.

“Once I’ve learned something from it, I have to be reminded never to never say never,” Emmert told AP. “The answer to this, of course, is that the board and everyone else will consider everything that makes sense for public order. These decisions are determined by medicine and there should be a very clear, unambiguous and unambiguous decision by the health authorities and our advisory board. It’s hard to imagine sitting here today. “

Even on Wednesday, when the NCAA appeared to be saving the tournaments by declaring its willingness to play in largely empty arenas that allowed only key employees, limited family members of players and coaches, and some media, Emmert warned that the crisis could force changes in public health.

It looked good after this announcement, but no one could go to bed and feel good on Wednesday night. It became known that the Utah Jazz Center had tested Rudy Gobert positive for the corona virus and the NBA was quickly closed.

“It was certainly a very important data point that triggered a lot more conversations and phone calls in my management team,” said Emmert.

The question became: Was it realistic to expect that for 3½ weeks no one involved in the games – players, coaches, officials, etc. – would become infected with the virus?

“It was becoming increasingly difficult to find our way there,” said Emmert.

He added: “I want to make it clear that I would not describe the NBA’s decision as the linchpin. It was part of the puzzle. “

Dr. Brian Hainline, chief medical officer of the NCAA, said the association’s COVID-19 advisory panel, which was composed of some of the country’s leading infectious disease and public health experts, gathered information about the spread of the virus and saw the conditions change quickly – and not for the better.

On Thursday morning, the NCAA officials gathered, worrying on the rise. Other professional sports leagues such as the NHL and MLS tried to suspend the game. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Congress that the United States had failed coronavirus testing.

“So we spent the morning exploring different options,” said Emmert. “Would it make sense to create an abbreviated model to speed up the calendar?”

Thursday should be one of the busiest and best days of the college basketball season. 58 Division I men’s games were planned, with tournaments in full swing for most of the strongest conferences.

All of these games were canceled a few moments before the EDT start around noon. Emmert said there was a flood of communication between conferences and NCAA officials in Indianapolis.

Emmert said the NCAA hadn’t advised a conference to cancel their games, but it didn’t take long for the prospect of saving March Madness to become bleak.

“It was midday (CDT) and it became pretty clear that between the information we got from Brian (Hainline) and his team, the challenges of trying to run the Sweet 16 model came together with all of these issues. The changes in the political environment in many states that this simply would not work, ”said Emmert.

At 3:00 p.m. a call was agreed with the 20-member board of governors. SUMMERTIME. They heard from Emmert, Hainline and Gavitt, who all explained why options like a mini-tournament or a move would not work.

Ohio State University CEO Michael Drake interviewed the board members and gave everyone the opportunity to speak.

“It was unanimous that the decision to cancel was the only sensible approach,” said Emmert. “Before we sent out a message, it was clear that the board was 100 percent supportive of the decision, and as you can imagine, everyone did so with deep regret. When we were done, I told the board that I had never been so disappointed that I had previously voted unanimously. “

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Follow Ralph D, Russo on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP

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More AP College basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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