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Joe Mihalich on NCAA Tournament cancellation: 'This is the unimaginable'

Joe Mihalich prepared his team to play for another week. He prepared the Hofstra men's basketball team for the thrill of hearing its name called Sunday when the NCAA was scheduled to reveal its 68-team tournament bracket.

But as the day progressed Thursday, two days after Hofstra had won the Colonial Athletic Association tournament championship, something unprecedented was happening in college sports.

Like so many other coaches, the Hofstra coach and former Niagara coach watched as conferences banned the general public from their tournaments, then took the extreme measure of cancelling tournaments as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded.

Then, all of college basketball stopped, when the NCAA announced it had cancelled all of its winter and spring championships because of the coronavirus outbreak. There would be no NCAA tournament for Mihalich and the Pride, who had earned the CAA's automatic bid.

“We are just gutted with our guys,” Mihalich told the News. “The other thing I kind of hang my hat on is that this must be really, really, really serious. We have to first and foremost think, if this is a global medical issue, we have to put that first.

“It doesn’t make it easier to deal with but it makes us understand why we’re doing it. There’s danger out there.”

Thirteen teams had already qualified for the NCAA men’s tournament, and 14 teams had already qualified for the women’s tournament, prior to the decision to shut down the championship tournaments.

Hofstra, the Colonial Athletic Association champion, will not play in the NCAA Tournament after it qualified for the first time since 2001. Mihalich will not coach in the NCAA Tournament; he last coached Niagara to the NCAA Tournament in 2007.

In conversations with other basketball coaches, Mihalich has found many of them share a similar feeling of despondency, at least from a basketball perspective.

“This has never happened before,” Mihalich said. “No one can imagine this. This is the unimaginable. You talk about worst-case scenario.”

'This is tough for real'

This is the first time in the 81-year history of the tournament that the NCAA Tournament will not be played, and Mihalich isn't the only coach, player or administrator with a tie to Western New York who won't be playing in the NCAA Tournament.

Carlin Hartman, a Grand Island graduate who played at Tulane, is an assistant coach at Oklahoma, which was projected to be an at-large selection to the NCAA men's tournament.

Bobby Hurley coached at the University at Buffalo from 2013 to 2015 and is in his fifth season as the coach at Arizona State, which was also projected to be an at-large selection.

Norm Roberts is an assistant coach at Kansas, which was expected to be one of the top seeds in the men's tournament; his son, Justin, plays basketball at Niagara. Kyle Neptune, who was an assistant at Niagara on Mihalich's staff, is an assistant at Villanova.

Jordan Nwora's junior season abruptly ended at Louisville, and the Park School standout is expected to declare for the NBA Draft.

"This is tough for real," Nwora wrote on Twitter.

Charlie Buscaglia, a Hamburg native, coaches the Robert Morris women's basketball team, which was a favorite to win the NEC Tournament and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, who lived in Niagara Falls as a teenager and graduated from Buffalo Seminary in 1971, had coached the Cardinal to every NCAA Tournament since 1988.

Several tournament-hopeful teams have administrators with ties to Western New York, including Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel, who held the same position at the University at Buffalo from 2005 to 2012; and Auburn athletic director Allen Greene, who was UB's athletic director from 2015 to 2018.

Shauna Green, a former Canisius women’s basketball standout, is head coach of the Dayton women’s basketball team, which won the Atlantic 10 tournament championship last Sunday (March 8). Four days later, she and the Flyers – as well as Dayton’s men’s basketball team, which was expected to be one of the top seeds in the NCAA men’s tournament – suddenly saw their season shuttered.

“The last day and a half, couple days has been extremely tough for our players,” Green told reporters Friday in Dayton, Ohio. “To have to tell them that their season is over is obviously something no one’s prepared for.

“They were heartbroken yesterday and still, today. But we’re trying to take the positives out of it. To win a championship, on our home floor, in front of our home fans is something that they’ll never forget.”

Green said she’d just arrived at her home Thursday when she learned of the NCAA’s decision to cancel the NCAA Tournament, and turned around and went back to Dayton’s campus. Green also said many of her players chose to leave campus and go home, immediately after the decision was announced.

“One of the weirdest things is saying, ‘bye’ to them, and not knowing when you’ll see them again,” Green said.

Like so many others in sports, both at the college and professional level, Green and her team are navigating a completely new situation.

“The most important thing, always, is the health of our student-athletes, and everyone,” Green said. “We know it was the right decision. It still doesn’t make it easy.”

Friday at the University at Buffalo, UB athletic director Mark Alnutt grew emotional when discussing the Southeast Missouri women’s basketball program, which earned an NCAA Tournament berth last Saturday (March 7) when it won the Ohio Valley Conference championship.

Alnutt was the athletic director at Southeast Missouri from 2012 to 2015 and hired women’s basketball coach Rekha Patterson in April of 2015.

“She’s worked hard to get to a point where it’s been 12, 13 years since that team has been in the NCAA Tournament,” a teary Alnutt said. “She fought and her team fought to be able to win the OVC championship and to go to the NCAA Tournament. For that to be taken away from a person like that, and that’s just one person out of everybody, you know what? It’s something that hit me hard. It broke my heart. But we all understand the reason for it and why that happened. There’s many stories like that.”

'Bigger than college basketball'

The magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic especially hit home for Hofstra and for CAA members, when the conference announced Thursday that an official who refereed conference tournament games in Washington, D.C., tested positive for coronavirus.

ESPN reported the official worked the Drexel-UNC-Wilmington game in the first round of the CAA Tournament. News 12 Long Island reported the official did not referee any of Hofstra’s CAA Tournament games, but Mihalich and his team saw the gravity of what has become a global health crisis.

“There’s something bigger going on,” Mihalich said. “Global health is bigger than college basketball. Being safe. Life and death is bigger than college basketball.”

With many off-season activities surrounding basketball put on hold because of a public health crisis, Mihalich has to figure out how he’s going to fill his time. He would recruit, but the NCAA has instituted an in-person recruiting ban across all Division I sports until April 15.

“I don’t know anything else,” Mihalich said. “I don’t know what to do, other than basketball.”

Still, the hurt of not being able to play basketball, Mihalich said, was palpable for him and for his team.

“It was hard to talk about it to them, because I was trying not to cry,” Mihalich said. “Think about what happened. These kids have dreamed their whole lives about going to NCAA Tournament. They did it. They made it. They cut the nets down, they qualified. Now they’re saying, ‘no, there won’t be a tournament.’

“You feel like you got deprived or robbed of something you worked for. It was a tough message to deliver. We told them, ‘look, it’s not fair but life isn’t always fair.’ And I told my guys, 'our last college game, we walked off the floor with nets around our neck. We stood on the stage. We got a trophy, Let’s make that our last memory.’ ”

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