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NCAA cancels March Madness, all winter and spring sports championships

The day began with players and coaches across the country preparing to participate in college basketball tournaments, whether it was the Big Ten, the Big East, the Mid-American Conference or the Division II championships.

By the close of the business day, everything was put on hold. Now, nobody knows what’s next.

In one of the most stunning and unprecedented decisions in college sports, the NCAA announced Thursday afternoon that it has canceled all the Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, along with the winter and spring championships in college sports, because of the coronavirus outbreak.

”This decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to the spread of the pandemic, and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during this academic year given the ongoing decisions by other entities,” the NCAA said in a statement.

The NCAA's decision comes in the wake of almost all the Division I conferences canceling their basketball tournaments Thursday.

Effectively, March Madness is no more. Not in Division I, where it is one of the most galvanizing events of the year, watched by millions who fill out their brackets in office pools nationwide and culminates with a celebration of the game at the Final Four. It won't happen in Division II or Division III, either.

Daemen basketball coach Mike MacDonald wasn’t thinking about when or even if his team would resume their schedule, with a public health crisis looming.

“The guys don’t know if they’ll do online classes, we don’t know if we’ll recruit,” said MacDonald, whose team qualified for the NCAA Division II tournament. “There’s a lot of weird things. It’s uncharted waters. But you have to trust your leadership at your institution and follow their lead and realize eventually, you hope, things will get back to normal.”

The NCAA’s decision to cancel the basketball tournaments, the baseball and softball College World Series, ice hockey’s Frozen Four and its national championship events came hours after the Mid-American Conference announced in Cleveland that it was canceling its men’s and women’s basketball tournament.

The MAC announced the tournament cancellation less than an hour before a 1 p.m. tip-off time of a men’s basketball quarterfinal between Ohio and Akron at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland.

“We’ve been in communication for well over a week, on the actions that other (conferences) were taking,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “We stepped out early on some procedures we were implementing for our tournament.

“And then today unfolded, and we were taking temperatures on what was going on around us. But at the end of the day, it’s a decision we have to make.”

No Selection Sunday

The bracket for the 68 teams in the NCAA men's basketball tournament was scheduled to be revealed Sunday.

Kansas, the top-ranked team, announced in a statement Thursday that it has suspended all athletic travel and all home and away events.

Duke, ranked No. 10 in the nation, said it was suspending all athletic events in all sports, including practice, in a statement from university president Mark E. Price.

With the top programs taking a stand and the top conferences following, the NCAA had little wiggle room.

“We emphatically support the decision made by Dr. Price today regarding the suspension of athletic competition at Duke," basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement. "The welfare of our student-athletes, and all students at Duke, is paramount, and this decision reflects that institutional priority. Certainly, I want to applaud Dr. Price, who took a leadership role with his presidential peers and the Atlantic Coast Conference in arriving at this decision.”

In Greensboro, N.C., Florida State and Clemson were taking part in warmups before a scheduled noon tipoff at the ACC Tournament. The teams left the floor and did not return. ACC Commissioner John Swofford then held an impromptu news conference on the floor to announce that the tournament was being canceled.

"This is really bigger than just from an athletics standpoint. This is a worldwide epidemic," Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton told reporters. "We will have more opportunities to play basketball, but the down side of some of the circumstances that could happen as a result of us not being cautious, not being properly cautious, would be something that we don't want to have to deal with."

The Big East was the only major conference to begin a tournament game Thursday. St. John's was leading Creighton 34-29 at halftime when the tournament was stopped.

"It breaks my heart," Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman told reporters. "This is the greatest college basketball tournament ever. But we respect the decision of authorities. We're very mindful about what's happening nationally. We do not want to be imprudent as it relates to the safety of our participants and our fans.

"And it's terrifying, frankly, what's evolving here as the science and the assessments of the science are progressing. And I don't think any of us know what's going to happen tomorrow."

Daemen's journey

Only two teams in the Buffalo area had qualified for the NCAA Division II basketball tournaments: the Daemen men’s and women’s teams.

MacDonald and the Daemen men’s basketball team left Thursday morning for Bridgeport, Conn., where they were to face Bridgeport on Saturday in the first round. However, the Wildcats learned of the cancellation of all NCAA championship events during a stop in Binghamton.

Daemen women's coach Jenepher Banker and her team spent the last two days on Long Island, where the Wildcats were scheduled to open the Division II women’s tournament Friday against Stonehill. She’d received emails during the week from tournament officials keeping her abreast of plans for the national tournament, but she and the Wildcats traveled back to Western New York after the NCAA canceled its championship events.

“As the news started to come down, we went from, ‘only a certain amount of people can attend’ to Duke pulls out all together to then the ACC (canceling),” Banker said. “You were kind of waiting for the next minute to see what would happen, while trying to stay focused on what you wanted to accomplish, if you were playing. And yet, there were so many things happening, and things continued to change.

“It’s hard to just focus on basketball when the world itself, there’s so much happening. I heard one of the NBA commentators say last night, after their season was suspended that with everything going on, sports is kind of trivial. It kind of is, to be honest with you. The safety and health of the student-athletes is the most important thing. Whatever decisions we need to make for that to be the case is what is the most important thing.”

MacDonald has coached college basketball since 1988 at Division I Canisius, Division II Daemen and Division III Medaille. He understands the NCAA’s decision to cancel its winter and spring championships.

But in his career as a coach, he’s never seen anything akin to an indefinite shutdown of the biggest event in college basketball happen in sports.

“The only thing I’ve seen happen like this is 9/11,” said MacDonald, who was the men’s coach at Canisius in September 2001. “It was a different time in the country.

"That was more of, it happened instantly and we had to react. This is more of a gradual buildup. You kind of see it coming.”

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