When the plane started to land, and Rutgers players had phone service again, they saw the news. The NCAA tournament was canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak.
There was shock, tears, disappointment. And that was before word had even reached head coach Steve Pikiell, who hadn’t turned his phone on yet after the flight. He thought and hoped that maybe this was speculation. He was unsure if what his players were reading on social media was true. Then he checked the NCAA website.
“Then I was like, oh, it’s over,” Pikiell says.
Rutgers was on the cusp of program history. The Scarlet Knights had not been to the NCAA tournament in 29 years and after going 20-11 this season and 18-1 at home, where they recorded a record number of sellouts, the team was projected to receive a tourney bid. Late versions of various bracketologies had them as a No. 7 or No. 8 seed.
Instead, the season ended with Pikiell hugging and thanking his players as they walked off the bus when they got back to campus on Thursday. They’d flown home from Indianapolis that afternoon after the Big Ten tournament was canceled. “It was like a wonderful scene out of something, but it really wasn’t,” Pikiell says.
Hofstra’s basketball team can relate. The Pride had clinched a bid for the first time since 2001 by winning the Colonial Athletic Association on Tuesday. Selection Sunday would have been a monumental lifetime moment for both Hofstra and Rutgers, who had suffered two of the nation’s longest NCAA tournament droughts.
“I told [my team] I felt like we got robbed,” Mihalich says, the heartbreak in his voice coming through strong over the phone late on Thursday. “Robbed of hearing your name called on Selection Sunday. Robbed of playing Villanova in Albany or Duke in Greensboro or Seton Hall in Cleveland. We were robbed of being a Cinderella team, being the story of March Madness. We were robbed of all of that.”
“There’s nothing like March Madness,” adds Pikiell, who has been in the tournament as a player at UConn and a head coach for Stony Brook. He also feels for his daughter Brooke, who is a junior on the Northwestern women’s basketball team. He says she was excited about the selection show.
Mihalich was walking on the treadmill in the team’s facility when he heard the official news. He gathered players who were still on campus in the locker room—Hofstra canceled classes but had not shut down the university—and called others who had already gone home to tell them the news. Mihalich says he could hardly breathe while thinking of what to say.
He told his guys that it’s O.K. to be emotional. Hofstra went from a feeling of euphoria to totally crushed. The seventh-year Pride coach wishes the NCAA could have postponed the tournament—“What’s wrong with May Madness?” he says, acknowledging he might be a bit selfish to think that could be pulled off. But he also understands the decision and the severity of the coronavirus threat. While the NBA, MLB and the Masters can postpone their respective seasons and championships, college players don’t have the luxury of time.
“Everything they’ve earned, everything they deserve, everything they’ve worked for and accomplished, their dreams coming true,” Mihalich says. “And now, poof.”
Earlier on Thursday, Rutgers was warming up on the floor at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis preparing to play Michigan in its first game of the Big Ten tournament. Fourteen minutes before tip, the conference canceled that game and the rest of the tournament. Pikiell and his players found out when athletic director Pat Hobbs broke the news in the locker room. At that point, there was still hope they’d have an NCAA tournament, or that at the very least, it would be postponed. Pikiell told his seniors that their season wasn’t over yet.
While their seasons are now over, there’s a chance, at least, that their college careers might not be. On Friday, the NCAA’s Council Coordination Committee said it's appropriate to grant another year of eligibility to spring sport athletes and is reportedly discussing options for winter sport athletes as well. Pikiell and Mihalich both say they’d be excited if players were offered that opportunity.
Looking ahead, Hofstra and Rutgers just have to do this all again next year to make up for this lost last month of hoops. That might be more realistic for Pikiell’s team, which returns the majority of the roster, including junior Geo Baker, who became the program’s first All-Big Ten selection in history. But they will miss guys like Shaq Carter and Akwasi Yeboah, who were essential to this run.
The Pride, however, lose their top two senior stars. Eli Pemberton scored 1,982 career points and would have reached or surpassed the 2,000-point mark if he’d hit his scoring average in Hofstra’s first NCAA tournament game. And Desure Buie was named CAA tournament MVP after amassing 20 points, five rebounds, five assists and two steals in the final against Northeastern.
Mihalich will now spend the next few days checking in with players, making sure they’re O.K. and helping them through this strange time. He points out that they still ended the season as CAA champions and, in their final game, walked off the court with nets hanging around their necks.
“We climbed the ladder with a pair of scissors and we stood on stage and received our championship trophies,” Mihalich says. “In our last game, we won a championship. There’s not going to be a national champion this year, just conference champions, so we’re one of 32.”
Pikiell reminds his players that while this year didn’t end as they envisioned, he wants them to be positive and remember how they changed the culture at Rutgers. He believes things happen for a reason and eventually, they will use this as a learning experience. And, as he keenly notes, the Scarlet Knights won their final two games against No. 9 Maryland and on the road versus Purdue and were named NCAA team of the week.
“If those had to be our last two games of the year,” Pikiell says, “those were two good ones.”