March Madness has been officially quieted by the coronavirus. The NCAA announced Wednesday it will close its doors for the Division I NCAA men’s and women’s basketball championships to fans.
The Final Four will still be played but probably not in a football stadium in Atlanta. The NCAA is looking for a smaller place to finish up its Division I men’s tournament. First-round venues are expected to remain the same.
This historic step was taken as governors and mayors around the United States began limiting public gatherings in their juristictions.
NCAA president Mark Emmert, in announcing that “only essential staff and limited family” would be allowed to attend NCAA Division I games, said in a statement that the decision was made based on advice from public health officials and the NCAA’s advisory panel on the coronavirus. The edict extends beyond basketball, Emmert using the term "upcoming championship events,'' which clearly includes wrestling and other winter sports.
"While I understand how disappointing this is for all fans of our sports, my decision is based on the current understanding of how COVID-19 is progressing in the United States,” Emmert said. “This decision is in the best interest of public health, including that of coaches, administrators, fans and, most importantly, our student-athletes.”
Emmert’s announcement came not long after Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine ordered men’s tournament games in the state to be played behind closed doors. That includes the opening round, set for next Tuesday and Wednesday in Dayton and first- and second-round games in Cleveland on March 20 and 22.
Other early-round sites are Albany, N.Y.; Spokane, Wash.; Tampa, Fla; and St. Louis on March 19 and 21; and Greensboro, N.C.; Omaha, Neb.; and Sacramento on March 20 and 22. The regional round sites are Indianapolis and Los Angeles on March 26 and 28, and Houston and New York on March 27 and 29.
Atlanta will host the Final Four on April 4 and the national championship game on April 6.
In the women’s tournament, first- and second-round games are hosted by the top four seeds in each region. This year’s regional round sites are Greenville, S.C.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Portland, Ore.; and Dallas. The Final Four is in New Orleans.
“We’re actually used to this,’’ Villanova coach Jay Wright said at a media conference Wednesday in New York, the day before his team is to begin play in the Big East tournament, which joined the Big 12, the Atlantic Coast Conference, the American Athletic Conference, the Big 10, and the Atlantic 10 in limiting fan access for their tournaments this week.
“We scrimmaged North Carolina in the Dean Dome last fall with no fans,'' Wright said. "So we do this. We really do. I don’t think it’s going to be as difficult for the players. As a coach, your young guys who haven’t experienced it, you feel for them. But this is so big. This is a great life lesson for our guys.”
The seriousness of this issue isn’t lost on anybody at this point. That includes his players, Wright said.
“We have times when we meet and talk about life, and we talk about what’s going on in the world,’’ Wright said. “Then we have times when we say, ‘OK, this is basketball. We’ve got to concentrate on 94-by-50 feet.’ But we will talk about this. We talk to them about their hygiene habits and washing their hands, fist-bumping and everything like that. So we’ll continue every day to talk to them about this. That’s the cool thing about being part of a team, being with college kids. You’re going through these experiences together.”
Wright’s own school announced Wednesday that, effective Saturday, all Villanova on-campus competitions would be limited to participants, essential personnel, officials, immediate family members of athletes participating, and the media.
If this NCAA directive holds and no further actions are taken and the NCAA Tournament games are all played, you can still fill out your brackets when the field is announced Sunday.
“I think that CBS’s March Madness and ESPN’s Championship Week is mostly a TV phenomenon,’’ said Drexel athletic director Eric Zillmer, whose women’s team is a strong contender to reach the NCAA Tournament. “With this directive, that is being preserved. It is a compromise. We will have to see how it plays out. I support it, and I hope the student-athletes will be able to play it out.”
Schools including Rutgers and Delaware already had announced Wednesday that sporting events would be played this spring without spectators, following the advice of experts who advise that social distancing is a key to keeping medical services from being overwhelmed by the virus.
The Ivy League has gone a step further, announcing that spring sports have been canceled, a day after the league’s postseason basketball tournament at Harvard was canceled, with the league deciding to send the regular-season champion to the NCAA Tournament as the Ivy representative.
Penn and West Chester, among others, have gone to online classes for the spring semester, and Villanova has suspended in-person classes. Penn State announced it would move to remote learning for three weeks, starting Monday.
Swarthmore College already had announced its third-round NCAA Division III men’s tournament game would be held Saturday without fans.
“I think we have to act for the greater good,’’ Swarthmore coach Landry Kosmalski said of the issue overall. “If this is the best course of action for the health of all citizens, then it is a no-brainer.”
The atmosphere for this NCAA Tournament obviously will be drastically different. Wright, whose Villanova team is already locked in as a high seed, was asked if this all will take away from the tournament, which his team has won twice in the last four years.
“It does a little bit,’’ Wright said. “But this is such a serious matter in our country. I think this is one of the things that the players, the student-athletes understand. There’s a lot of things in life bigger than basketball.”
"We recognize the opportunity to compete in an NCAA national championship is an experience of a lifetime for the students and their families,'' Emmert said in his statement. “Today, we will move forward and conduct championships consistent with the current information and will continue to monitor and make adjustments as needed.”