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'It's Brutal': March Madness's Return Gets a Gut Punch With VCU's COVID-19 Forfeit

The NCAA tournament’s worst-case scenario came to life on Saturday, perhaps inevitably.

INDIANAPOLIS — Sometime between 6:20 and 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Mike Rhoades had the worst duty of any coach in the men's NCAA tournament. He called his VCU Rams team into the hallway outside their rooms on the 16th floor of the J.W. Marriott here and informed them that their season was over without getting to play in the Big Dance.

“It was devastating,” Rhoades says. “It was heartbreaking. There were not a lot of dry eyes. You dream of this as a player, and to have it taken away like this is a heartbreaking affair.”

It was taken away by COVID-19, which remains a scourge even as the country sprints through vaccinations and toward further reopening. Part of the nudge in optimism being felt in America was having an NCAA tournament again, after the pandemic canceled the men's and women's last year, and the chance to celebrate it in a more communal fashion.

And then here came the gut-punch reminder that it can still be taken away.

A sign urges fans to "Keep March Madness Safe"

About three hours before its first-round game against No. 7 seed Oregon, tenth-seeded VCU was pulled from the tournament in a joint decision by the Marion County Public Health Department and the NCAA. The Rams had experienced multiple positive tests in recent days, and health experts raised concerns about a cluster outbreak. VCU said it had enough healthy players to play the game—the NCAA had previously said a team with five guys could play—but that was overridden. 

VCU had been waiting much of the day for final approval from the NCAA to play the game. The later it went without word, the more Rhoades started getting nervous. The Rams had their pregame meal on their hotel floor still planning to depart as scheduled for Indiana Farmers Coliseum when the word finally was passed down—first to athletic director Ed McLaughlin and then from him to Rhoades. 

Just as suddenly as last year, the season was over for VCU. March Sadness rained down on the Rams again, just as it did when the 2020 season was abruptly canceled. But Rhoades was philosophical about it, trying to keep the bigger picture in mind.

“We’re talking about two basketball games,” he said. “There’s been over 500,000 deaths. As devastated as we are over a basketball game—two, right?—there are people who have had it a lot worse than us.”

He’s right, of course. But this was the NCAA tournament’s worst-case scenario come to life, perhaps inevitably. The chances of getting 67 games played was probably remote, for good reason. On the third day of a three-week tourney, we lost the first one.

We previously have lost plenty of regular-season games in both football and basketball to positive tests and contact tracing. We lost bowl games and conference tournament games (more on that later). But this is the most significant lost competition thus far.

This is college sports on a high wire.

“This is the world we live in,” said Troy team physician Jeff Dugas. “We knew it wasn't going to be perfect. We did the best we could to make it as low-risk as we could, but you could never make it zero-risk. Everything was done understanding that you can’t have it be perfect.”

While trying to figure out where the protocols and protections broke down, VCU school officials believe strongly that they did everything they could do to stay healthy. The basketball team had had no positive tests since last summer, and had no pauses during the season. “I think we did the right things all the way through,” McLaughlin said. “I don’t know if it’s bad luck or what it is. It’s just terrible.”

There has been some rumination about a possible path that leads back to the Atlantic 10 tournament in Dayton—and maybe even a tangent to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro. But nothing is remotely certain.

Concerns were raised by some sources about the Dayton Marriott as a source of VCU’s issues. That’s where the A-10 teams and officials were staying. One of the officials who worked the A-10 title game against St. Bonaventure was Roger Ayers, who since has tested positive and missed the men's NCAA tournament. 

Prior to coming to town to work that game, Ayers also worked two games in the ACC tourney—on Wednesday March 16 he did Louisville–Duke, and the Blue Devils tested out of the tourney the following day. On Thursday, March 17 he did Miami–Georgia Tech, and Yellow Jackets big man Moses Wright subsequently tested positive and missed the NCAA tourney. (Virginia also had to drop out of the ACC tourney due to COVID-19 issues, and the Cavaliers barely made it to Indy for this tourney. They arrived Friday afternoon, practiced once Saturday morning and played Saturday night—whereupon they were bounced by Ohio.)

Dugas said “there’s no way to responsibly connect” all the basketball positive tests. “There’s too many other opportunities for infection,” he added. "So many other variables.” Nobody is saying Ayers—or a Duke player or whoever—is Patient Zero of this college basketball situation.

However, some of the sport's officials privately are wondering about the NCAA’s handling of the refs who are and aren’t working this tournament. Five of them who had dinner with Ayers were removed from the tournament by contact tracing, but the two who worked that A-10 final with him have been allowed to officiate here: Bert Smith and Brent Hampton. Smith officiated the Loyola Chicago–Georgia Tech game Friday and USC–Drake Saturday; Hampton worked the North Texas–Purdue game Friday. 

VCU coach Mike Rhoades

While VCU might wonder about how all this came to knock them out of the NCAA tournament, that knowledge wouldn’t change anything. The bottom line: the season is over without seeing how far the Rams might have gone. They would have been underdogs to Oregon, but Rhoades said the team’s practices in Indy had been among their best of the season.

But instead of playing Saturday night, the school was making preparations to send most of its team home Saturday night, while also arranging safe ground transportation for those who had tested positive. Credit VCU for being available to the media to discuss what happened and answer questions, on a painful day when the Rams' legs were cut out from under them. And then note that nobody from the NCAA addressed the situation beyond a prepared statement.

“It’s brutal,” said McLaughlin. “It’s the only way I can describe it. … I’m heartbroken for our student-athletes and coaches. Probably best to leave it there.”

Everyone who remains in Indy will fervently hope they’re not next.