March Madness? Won’t happen.
The Frozen Four? Not this year.
The NCAA Wrestling Championships? Done, too.
The NCAA on Thursday made a colossal, far-reaching decision, announcing that it has canceled its men’s and women’s basketball championships, along with all remaining winter and spring sports championships, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Big Ten Conference and the University of Minnesota followed that lead, ending the college sports year as we know it.
“This decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to the spread of the pandemic, and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during this academic year given ongoing decisions by other entities,” the NCAA said in a statement.
This was a change of course, after the NCAA announced Wednesday that upcoming championships would be played in front of crowds limited to essential personnel and immediate family members.
Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle said he fully supported the decisions of the NCAA and the Big Ten, while acknowledging how difficult it is for the players.
“My heart goes out to all the student-athletes and the fans,” Coyle said from Indianapolis, site of the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament.
“Our goal is we want to provide a great experience for our student-athletes, coaches, staff and fans that interact with our program. And I just think about all the student-athletes. I mean, we had to tell student-athletes today who have chances to compete for championships, but that opportunity is not going to exist right now. And nobody knows what it’s gonna look like in the future.”
Nationally, the news that the highly popular and lucrative men’s basketball tournament will not be played this year created the most shock waves. Earlier in the day, Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren had pulled the plug on the league’s men’s basketball tournament, pulling Rutgers and Michigan players right off the court.
“I can’t recall the last time we had a pandemic, but we do here,” Warren said. “If it comes down that we overreacted, I’m comfortable with that. We needed to make sure we went to the highest level to give us a chance to deal with this acute problem.”
The tipping point throughout U.S. sports came Wednesday night, when the NBA announced it was suspending its season. That came after the news that Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz had tested positive for coronavirus.
On Thursday, other pro and college leagues followed suit, with the Big Ten, Atlantic Coast, Big 12 and Pac-12 canceling their men’s basketball tournaments. Major League Soccer, the NHL and Major League Baseball all announced suspensions or delays in their seasons.
“The only thing I would offer from an advice standpoint, whether it’s the NCAA or any other person in my seat, is to make sure you put the student-athlete at the epicenter of your decision,” Warren said. “If you do that, you’ll be led to the right decision. When I woke up this morning even more so than I felt yesterday, I just felt in my spirit [suspending play] was the right thing to do.”
On the local college scene, the biggest immediate impact will come in wrestling and hockey.
Minneapolis was scheduled to be host of the NCAA Wrestling Championships at U.S. Bank Stadium, and organizers hoped to draw 45,000 per session, which would have shattered the event’s attendance record.
“The fans would have been crazy in this big stadium, and it might have been the biggest event that wrestling has had,” said Gophers sophomore Gable Steveson, the nation’s top-ranked heavyweight who was hoping to cap an undefeated season with a national championship, in his backyard.
In hockey, the Gophers women’s team’s NCAA quarterfinal game against Ohio State on Saturday was scrapped. The Gophers men’s team, instead of doing battle in a Big Ten semifinal Saturday at Penn State, had its season end abruptly.
Minnesota Duluth had a chance to become a three-time defending NCAA men’s hockey champion, and Minnesota State Mankato was ranked No. 2 in the country.
“They’re all still in shock a little bit,” Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said of his players. “To have it end this way, it’s tough. … In the big picture, it’s probably the right decision.”
The Gophers women’s gymnastics team had sold out Maturi Pavilion for its meet on Saturday against top-ranked Oklahoma, led by 2019 NCAA all-around champion Maggie Nichols of Little Canada, but that was wiped out, too.
At the Division III level, rivals St. John’s, ranked No. 2 nationally, and St. Thomas were to meet in an NCAA men’s basketball Sweet 16 showdown on Saturday in Collegeville.
Winter sports aren’t the only ones to take a hit. The Gophers baseball team, a perennial Big Ten contender, saw its season end after 18 games. Minnesota’s softball team, which advanced to the Women’s College World Series in 2019, is done after 25 games.
“Don’t even know where to begin,” Gophers senior softball pitcher Amber Fiser posted on Instagram. “ ... I still can’t believe that last night was the last game I ever pitched for this University, the last time I put this uniform on.”
Added baseball pitcher Max Meyer on Twitter: “Unbelievable. Worst birthday ever.”
The move affects the Gophers football team, too, with the Big Ten announcing a moratorium on “all on- and off-campus recruiting activities for the foreseeable future.”
Staff writers Megan Ryan and Marcus Fuller contributed to this report.