Inside the 24 hours that shook the hoops world

In the end, the NCAA and the collegiate conferences did what needed to be done. There's no reason to stage basketball tournaments during a global health crisis. But the way in which the cancellations came was both dizzying and disjointed. On Wednesday, the NCAA caught the conferences by surprise. One day later, those conferences essentially forced the NCAA's hand.

» More AJC coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

Having been in Nashville for the one-day SEC tournament, having spoken with the decision-makers on the scene and afterward, I’ve tried to reconstruct a narrative. It begins like this:

As of noon Wednesday, business was being conducted mostly as usual. The Ivy League had canceled its tournament Tuesday; the Mid-American Conference in Cleveland was set to begin play behind closed doors, as was the Big West in Anaheim. But the ACC, the granddaddy of all tournaments, had begun Tuesday night. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey would recall having dinner Tuesday night in Nashville and saying, “I’m excited to have fans.”

Everything changed Wednesday afternoon. The conferences received what Sankey would later call “stark information” from the NCAA’s COVID-19 Advisory Group. During a regularly scheduled meeting with the conference athletic directors, word came that the World Health Organization had declared this a pandemic. “You could tell the room changed,” Sankey said.

That said, no conference was prepared for what happened at 4:30 p.m. EDT. The NCAA announced it would play it men's and women's tournaments sans fans. This bulletin arrived as the ACC was finishing an afternoon session, as the Pac-12 had just tipped off and the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, and Big East were set to start that night – all WITH fans in the stands.

If you were a conference exec, your first thought was: “The NCAA just said it doesn’t feel it’s safe to play with people in attendance but didn’t think to give us a heads-up? What do we do with the people already in our buildings?”

At halftime of the SEC's opening game, this correspondent asked someone in a position to know if the league planned to continue with fans being admitted. This person said: "Greg will have something to say after the game." On cue, Sankey went on the SEC Network to announce that the rest of the tournament would be closed to fans, even as Tom Crean and two Georgia players were being questioned about their victory over Ole Miss and the coming game against Florida.

Sankey was next to the podium. Yours truly asked his reaction to the NCAA’s announcement. His response:

“Surprise, shock, probably a few other words that came to mind. Disappointment. We have a national association for which I have great respect, but there are those frustrating times. The ability to have information to make decisions in the best manner possible is important to all of us. With full knowledge, we had a conference tournament at this level in the ACC start yesterday, so you can imagine the enormous difficulty that we’re faced with in making these decisions, making these adjustments, informing people, some of who have probably traveled here, others who were ready to go.

“But (we) respect that medical leaders, experts, have provided a recommendation. I wish it may have been earlier or perhaps later; it’s the best information available now, and we have to respect that. As I walk through the day, from the initial analysis, you clear your mind and you start working through decisions that have to be made. That’s the responsibility that I have as the commissioner of this conference … ‘Disappointing’ is a good word, but we also have a reality around public health which we’re managing.”

By night’s end, every major conference had announced that its tournament would continue without fans. At 10 a.m. Thursday, ACC commissioner John Swofford met the assembled media in Greensboro to say that basketball would indeed be played, just without fans. Two hours later, Swofford took the microphone on the Coliseum court and announced the tournament had been canceled.

By then, every league – save the Big East, which unbelievably allowed its 12:30 game between Creighton and St. John's to begin before halting it at halftime – had made a similar announcement. Tennessee and Alabama were warming up for their game in Bridgestone Arena; No. 1 seed Kentucky, which wasn't scheduled to begin play until Friday afternoon, had just finished a practice. What happened Thursday morning to convince the conferences to go from playing without fans to not playing at all?

The NBA announced Wednesday night at around 9:30 it suspended its season. Speaking Thursday, Sankey said: “Literally as I walked up here last night, the NBA stopped the game and had a player diagnosed with coronavirus. … As you were asking me (about playing without fans), going through my mind is, ‘I have a responsibility to care for people, both our staff, our student-athletes, our coaches and our fans.’ We made the best decisions possible at the time, but information has developed.”

Reports of NBA player Rudy Gobert testing positive and the Utah Jazz being quarantined in an Oklahoma City arena terrified the conference commissioners. Given a night to sleep (though surely not much) on it, they saw no way around the obvious: If the NBA wouldn’t allow professionals to keep playing, how could colleges ask amateurs to continue?

Sankey: “In talking quickly now with our coaches, what I’ve heard is (college players) look at the NBA. When that (the suspended season) happens at the NBA level, they’re saying, ‘You want me to post up and guard closely and do these sorts of things?’ ”

On Thursday morning, the Power 5 commissioners – they call themselves the A-5, the “A” for “autonomous” – didn’t wait on the NCAA. They conducted conference calls, no pun intended, and concluded they couldn’t allow their athletes to play on. In virtual lockstep, they canceled their tournaments.

At 1:45 p.m., Duke announced its players wouldn’t take part in any sports “for the foreseeable future.” Given that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is the most powerful man in the sport and that AD Kevin White is the chairman of the NCAA basketball committee, that told us that the Big Dance was doomed.

On Thursday morning, the NCAA was still discussing alternatives to Mercedes-Benz Stadium as a Final Four site with the Atlanta Host Committee. At 4:07 p.m., the NCAA announced the cancellation of all tournaments in winter/spring sports. What would have seemed unthinkable as the week began became, after the palpitations of the previous 24 hours, almost a fait accompli.

About the Author