Inside the Eerie Scene of College Basketball's Final Game of the Season

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Tim Brando didn’t expect to have called the final men’s college basketball game of the 2019-20 season. Yet, here he is. “It’s only now am I beginning to grasp it,” Brando said in an interview with Sports Illustrated Thursday evening. “I’ll always have that canned response to ‘What’s the most bizarre thing you covered?’” The answer: a Big East Tournament quarterfinal game between St. John’s and Creighton, of all things, that somehow will go down as the last played—not completed—men’s basketball game of this season. It came with no One Shining Moment, no championship trophy, no confetti.

While coronavirus fears shuttered virtually every other athletic event, the Big East Tournament marched on, and there was Brando, the longtime broadcaster sitting courtside Thursday while calling the only game not just in town but in the country. With the NCAA Tournament nixed, we now know it is the last one of the season, possibly even the final men’s NCAA sporting event of 2019-20. Officials canceled the St. John’s-Creighton game at halftime, something Brando learned from a group of assistant coaches. “Today was surreal,” he says. “I felt uncomfortable about what was going on, but we had a product to put on the air. That's what we do.”

Just ahead of tipoff in New York, a domino effect swept across the country related to the coronavirus outbreak. Five minutes before Brando took to the air, he saw that Big Ten officials pulled players from the floor during warmups ahead of their own scheduled tournament game. Other leagues followed - the SEC, the ACC, the Big 12. No conference tournament played as deep into Thursday as the one at Madison Square Garden, where Brando led an FS1 broadcast that included color analyst and former Kansas guard Nick Bahe and sideline reporter Lisa Byington. “We were wondering if we were going to play up until the anthem was played,” Brando says. “The teams came out and we’re playing ball. The moment they decided to play, that brought me back to the SEC Tournament when the tornado hit the Georgia Dome.”

There were no videoboards swaying or debris falling, but as bizarre situations go, this felt awfully familiar to Brando. He called the Alabama-Mississippi State SEC Tournament quarterfinal in 2008, when an F2 twister side-swiped the old Georgia Dome and interrupted play, sending material from the fabric ceiling onto the playing surface. While the SEC Tournament was later completed on Georgia Tech’s campus, the 2020 Big East tournament will end with St. John's leading Creighton 38-35 at the half. In fact, seconds after Brando removed his headset at halftime, a group of assistant coaches from Butler walked by to deliver the news. “It’s over,” they said. “It’s done.”

The NCAA men’s athletic season might end this way, too. The NCAA canceled all spring championships, and schools have suspended their spring sports seasons, some of them canceling them all together. Unless several conferences lift their own suspensions, the next NCAA-sanctioned competition might not unfold until August, and the next NCAA championship won’t happen until the field hockey semifinals in November of 2020 — more than eight months away.

Thursday got messy on several fronts. Each conference made decisions on competitions at various times and in different forms. It became hard to know what conference was playing its conference tournament still and what conference wasn’t. The confusion speaks to a greater issue, Brando says: The NCAA needs a commissioner like the pro leagues. “We need to look at the bigger picture,” says Brando, a 64-year-old who's covered the NCAA Tournament in the past for ESPN and CBS. “The NCAA has so many problems to deal with. I think the people governing our sports, those in governance, they need to come to grips with the fact that there are times when they have to talk and communicate at the highest level and have someone outside of them serving the best interest of the sport, being the one voice. What happened today is Exhibit A.”

Confusion at the Big East Tournament was at an all-time high. During pregame warmups, the court was abuzz with talk of the other conferences shuttering their events, says Byington, a Northwestern graduate who’s covered the Big East Tournament for Fox the last four years. “I walked over to Big East officials,” she says. “Before I got the question out of my mouth, they said, ‘We are going to play our four games today.’” The first half unfolded, and Byington readied for her halftime interview with St. John’s coach Mike Anderson. Because of rumblings around the building, she assumed the game would be canceled. A thought popped into her head just before interviewing Anderson: This could be the last interview I do for the year. It was, of course. And with that, Brando and his crew capped the men’s basketball season at halftime of a Big East Tournament quarterfinal in a sparsely filled arena.

“It was really surreal,” Byington says. “The Big East gave us our last little taste of March Madness. Technically it doesn’t go down as a game. It’s sad. Kid for Creighton hardly gets playing time and was having a knock-out first half, and it won’t count for him.”