A year ago this week Kansas had just dropped out of the NCAA Tournament. One problem, no one had bothered to tell Kansas.
They say truth is the first casualty of war. In those confusing final hours before sports went dark last March, Jayhawks' coach Bill Self was in reassurance mode. The Big 12 Tournament – one of the biggest conference tourney parties in the country – went from starting on time to being played before family only to being canceled because of COVID-19.
"Then there was this report that Duke and Kansas pulled out of the [NCAA] tournament," Self said. "I'm going, 'What the hell is this?' So all the players saw this. I convinced all the guys on the bus, it's not true."
Friday marks the anniversary of COVID-19 turning the lights out on One Shining Moment. On March 12, 2020 all sports in the U.S. ceased but the pandemic hit college hoops especially hard.
The NCAA Tournament is stitched into our sporting hearts. Despite the rent-a-player aspect of one-and-dones, the cheating, some the pompous bloviating coaches, there is still an innocence for those of us who ever tried to touch the rim or dunk on an eight-foot goal.
We missed the tournament last year like we missed a limb. The answer to "what if?" has now had 12 months to simmer.
Teams that had forever seasons will never get them back. Cinderellas will never know if the slipper fit. Turns out 2020 was the ultimate mock bracket. The tournament ended any way you wanted it to. All you needed was a Twitter feed and an opinion.
That only ramped up the hurt.
"We were going to be a 1-seed and maybe an overall No. 1 seed," Self recalled this week. "We're all excited. We go from that to we may not play to 'All right guys, everybody needs to be out of here in 48 hours. Take everything with you cause you're not going to be back until at least the summertime.' There were hugs in our meeting room."
College basketball gathers itself again this week at conference tournaments around the country for what it hopes to be a full, if socially-distanced, completion of the season beginning next week in Indianapolis.
This week also marks a grim milestone. The idea here is not so much as to assess the damage but celebrate a return. The game has made it through this upended season. Almost.
Dan Gavitt is naturally sanguine. Early on last March the NCAA's medical advisors were positive about the tournament. Then, for the NCAA's senior vice president of basketball, it felt like fine china dropped out of a third-story window. A precious thing shattered. What had once been would never be again.
"Maybe I was a little naïve in some ways," said Gavitt who oversees the day-to-day operation of the tournament. "I'm optimistic by nature … because our medical folks were telling us over the weekend we could have fans. Along about Tuesday it was, 'OK fans are being restricted now.' That's when I started to get more nervous and anxious."
It was all gone in a blink. On that Tuesday (March 10) the Ivy League canceled its tournament. On Wednesday night Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg got sick and was rushed to the hospital with what some naturally thought to be COVID-19. (It was the flu.) Michigan and Rutgers were pulled off the floor moments before the Big Ten Tournament opener. In the ACC, Florida State was hastily awarded the championship trophy on the floor after that league's tournament was cancelled.
This is a story that involves doctors and commissioners and coaches and fans. But what registered the deepest in that moment was the players. In the Big 12, press row phones blew up that Wednesday night as Kansas State played TCU with the news the Utah Jazz' Rudy Gobert tested positive. The NBA quickly shut down. Gavitt – and other college administrators – began getting texts from coaches about their players.
"If you get hesitation and fear in the very people that are playing these games that you're doing this for, then all could be lost," Gavitt said. "You wouldn't put them in that position to begin with. But once they saw their peers and who they want to be someday not being able to play then I think that concern had to creep in."
The NCAA Tournament was canceled the next day.
"That really hit our basketball players hard," Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. "Once they saw the NBA canceling games all the sudden this became real to them. I remember that vividly … [College players] think they're bulletproof. They don't think about a virus that could kill somebody."
History will ultimately reflect what tipped the tournament toward cancellation. The measure of COVID-19 is that it took one helluva lot. The first NCAA Tournament was in 1939 played 2 ½ years before Pearl Harbor. It continued through World War II. Dan Gavitt's dad Dave was on the NCAA basketball committee March 30, 1981 when John Hinckley shot President Ronald Reagan the day of the championship game.
"That committee had to wrestle with, 'Do you play the game? Do you not play the game?' Dan Gavitt said. "I wonder if my dad would have flashed back to that. As much as he loved the game, there was always a bigger picture to everything."
The NCAA eventually decided to play that championship game that saw Bobby Knight win his second national championship. Dave Gavitt, who passed in 2011, remains a towering figure in basketball. Most famous as the first Big East commissioner, he was also coach of the 1980 U.S. Olympic basketball team that was part of the boycott of the Moscow Olympics.
"He was an American, first and foremost," Dan Gavitt said. "He accepted that was the president's decision. He would have been practical around this. If it's not safe and healthy for everybody involved we can't do it. But he would have been heartbroken too."
In the run up to the 2003 tournament, the selection committee was in contact with the Defense Department. The U.S. invaded Iraq on March 19, a day after the tournament started citing Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction." The tournament hung on.
"What we heard from [the government] was, 'People are going to be uncomfortable enough, scared enough, uncertain enough. We don't need something like the NCAA Tournament to be cancelled to send everyone into a tizzy," said Bowlsby, a member of the committee that year.
Seventeen years later Bowlsby's eyes were turning red. The still-fit 69-year old former college wrestler was getting emotional facing a packed media house in the bowels of the Sprint Center. This time last year the Big 12 commissioner's basketball tournament had already been canceled by COVID-19. In the moments that followed the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament the only available sentiment was March Sadness.
"It was kind of surreal," Bowlsby said this week. "I recall sitting at that press conference. It was a little bit of an out-of-body experience. You just don't feel like that's the sort of thing you're going to [do] -- get in front of the media and say, 'Yeah we're serious. We're not playing.' "
That week, baseball's boys of spring quietly left their training facilities in Arizona and Florida. The NBA had already quickly canceled. Hockey paused with just a month's worth of regular-season games remaining.
But the biggest shock came in college basketball. Three days before Selection Sunday COVID-19 had done what wars and a presidential assassination attempt couldn't – cancel the tournament. A giant hole formed in America's sports calendar.
That hole will never be filled in.
Not only was the tournament cancelled but the remainder of the NCAA's winter and spring sports. The NCAA faced blowback for acting so early to take out the College World Series, the traditional end to the college sports/academic year.
"It wasn't like, 'Hey, well, we're only talking about a couple of weeks and we'll be back to normal.' It was bleak and there was no chance," said Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione.
"Joe C" as he is known in the business, like a lot of ADs, had to stand up in front of all of his school's athletes and relay the bad news.
"It was surreal when the words were coming out of my mouth," he said. "It was heartbreaking to see the response. You're looking at any number of student-athletes who worked not just that year but they had worked their life for that moment.
"Some of them were on the precipice of competing for a national championship. Some were about to have the best year of their career. Some of them knew they were having last year of their career."
"I haven't really thought about it much," Self said. "I wish those guys would have had a chance to make a run at it, but the reality of it is, there's been so much stuff going on it's not anything I focus on. There are things more important than ball."
After one of Kansas best regular seasons, the Jayhawks responded with a second-place finish in the Big 12 in the 2020-21 follow up (19-8, 12-6 in the Big 12).
"The luckiest teams in the country are probably the ones that had a pause as long as nobody got sick," Self said. "The ones that could be unlucky are the ones that did a really good job [avoiding the virus] all year long. You come across a classmate, visit with them for five minutes. Next thing you know you can infect your whole team."
"What if?" is now almost a year old.
Like Kansas, Baylor was a projected No. 1 seed a year ago. A 26-4 season was flushed when the tournament was cancelled. Several Bears faced decisions on whether to turn pro. Every one of substance returned and No. 2 Baylor (21-1) might be better than last season's team.
But COVID-19 had its say. The Bears were forced to pause for three weeks in February. In their second game back they won at West Virginia clinching the program's first outright regular-season conference title in 71 years.
"What if?" has turned into … "how far?" Gonzaga is undefeated. The Big Ten might have four teams on the top-two seed lines. Apparently, Alabama can play basketball too.
Just don't celebrate. Not yet. The first NCAA Tournament in two years isn't over until One Shining Moment plays. Again.
"Part of it seems like a year ago," Bowlsby said of the past 12 months. "Part of it seems like 10 years ago. There isn't any way to put a good face on it. If there was someone I could ask, I would ask for a refund on 2020."