By Arnie Leshin
Just go up and down the television channels, catch a movie, watch some politics, see tapes of past sports events, tune in to talk shows, you have choice of everything but live sports. Call it March Sadness.
This is the day after the anticipated college basketball men’s Selection Sunday was cancelled. No jaw-breaking bracket busters and buzzer beaters, no bubble breakers, no Sweet 16 to the Final Four to the celebration and hoisting of the championship trophy. No March Madness, no bracket-pool contests that almost everyone, the hard-core basketball fan or the clueless, but anxious individual who can’t tell a personal foul from a pick-and-roll but wants to join the three-week college hoops bracket-pool spectacular just for the fun of it.
Before fears about the globe-wide coronavirus scrubbed sports for the foreseeable future, Sunday was supposed to be the big reveal — the day when Americans gathered around a TV for an hour to watch the Division I 68-school field announcement. It would have brought the usual quality teams, those that slipped in as bubble teams, as well as the usual disappointments who just didn’t get the call.
Think about 206 DI schools with winning records. Not this year guys. For the 138 schools with losing records, it doesn’t matter, their season was over anyway. How about the eight schools at .500 who might have made the field by upsetting their way to a tournament title? But the 19 remaining men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments won’t happen.
But there was always the ancient National Invitational Tournament that was taken over by the NCAA in 2013. It could gotten schools like St. John’s, Rutgers, Saint Peter’s, Syracuse, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Connecticut, Alabama, Western Kentucky, Arkansas, Cincinnati, Boise State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, Purdue, Georgetown, Georgia, even Harvard, which finished second to Yale in the Ivy League.
The Storm, the Scarlet Knights, the Peacocks and the Orange would have been attracted by the NIT’s semifinals that is played at Madison Square Garden, the Mecca of arenas. Syracuse had played probably its best game of the up-and-down season by overwhelming North Carolina in the ACC tournament quarterfinals, and was lined up to face Louisville the next day when the NCAA turned the tournament off.
St. John’s got away to a good start, faded somewhat along the way, but would have been in a comfort zone playing before its fans at MSG. Rutgers, which hadn’t made the tournament since 1991, was almost unbeatable at home and was ranked most of the season, but a five-game Big 10 road trip brought four losses that dimmed its chances getting to the Big Dance. Saint Peters was in first place in the MAAC until the final week and would have gladly accepted an NIT invitation.
All four of these schools that draw well at MSG were over .500, the criteria for the NIT.
Getting back to the NCAA tournament that won’t occur, no way now to determine if Kansas was the legit overall No. 1, if defending champion Virginia had a chance to repeat after a sub par campaign, if preseason No. 1 Michigan State that went from cold to hot was perhaps now the team to beat, would Gonzaga be the usual threat, and just how good Dayton might be, and were San Diego State and Baylor overrated?
Can’t forget Duke, even Florida State, Kentucky and Oregon. And can’t forget that Kansas could be staring at serious sanctions from the NCAA, which has targeted it with the dreaded “lack of institutional control” for a series of alleged recruiting violations. Would the Jayhawks have made it to Atlanta for the Final Four, and if not, who was ready to step in.
Then there was Dayton at 29-2 and ranked 3rd in the Associated Press poll, and headed for a No. 1 seed. The Flyers are from the struggling Ohio city that was shattered by a mass shooting last summer, and the 11,000 student Catholic school was a candidate for most inspirational and for being helpful in pulling the city together somehow.
Ohio Valley Conference rivals Belmont and Liberty were having stellar seasons, and in the conference championship between the two, Belmont won on a last-second basket off a backdoor cut. Both were projected to make the tournament field. New Mexico State University was two points away from stunning Auburn in the first round last year when an Aggie player passed up the open 3 with a pass to a teammate who was fouled and made only one of three tries, and there went the upset. NMSU was again expected to win its Western Athletic Conference tournament and go to the Big Dance again, but that came to an abrupt halt.
Then there’s Butler, a regular in the tournament and a shoo-in again, but the availability of its mascot dog, Blue III, has been a source of controversy since the NCAA banned him from entering arenas a few years ago. Now it doesn’t matter whether his handler, Michael Kaltenmak, as reported, is hanging up the leash or not.
And with health coming first and the games second, there wasn’t a player, coach or fan in America who thought the season would end before the fun even began.