Virginia Commonwealth University was kicked out of the NCAA Tournament hours before its first-round game Saturday because multiple players tested positive for COVID-19, an outbreak that imperiled the 68-team event and underscored, once again, the delicate nature of staging such a spectacle amid a pandemic a year after it was canceled entirely.
The NCAA announced the cancellation—officially declaring a “no contest”—about three hours before the No. 10 seed Rams were scheduled to tip off against No. 7 seed Oregon in the West Region.
VCU’s players got the news after they had finished their pregame meal.
“It was devastating. It was heartbreaking. No dry eyes. This is what you dream of as a college player and a coach. To get it taken away like this, it’s just a heartbreaking moment in their young lives,” VCU coach Mike Rhoades said. “It just stinks. There’s no way I can sugarcoat it.”
VCU athletic director Ed McLaughlin declined to say which players tested positive, citing privacy concerns. There were multiple positive tests over two days, which is why the Rams had to forfeit, while other schools were able to play first-round games after a single COVID-19 case.
Oklahoma, for example, was in action on Saturday despite guard De’Vion Harmon’s positive test and beat Missouri. Georgia Tech lost to Loyola Chicago on Friday after ACC player of the year Moses Wright tested positive.
“I just shake my head to think we did all the right things all the way through,” McLaughlin said. “I want to make clear that this is not something where our team broke protocol and did the wrong thing. We don’t know how this happened, but it certainly wasn’t because of bad behavior.”
Virginia Commonwealth University, based in Richmond, is a member of Atlantic 10 Conference and best known in men’s basketball for a surprising run to the 2011 Final Four as an 11th seed.
A year after the tournament was scrapped altogether in the early days of the pandemic, the NCAA was hoping to get cleanly through the 19-day basketball festival known as March Madness, reducing arena capacities to 22% or lower and basing the whole thing in Indiana instead of sprinkling games around the country.
The governing body of college sports made all players return seven negative COVID tests before arriving, then placed all of the teams in downtown hotels and restricted their movements.
It created what it called a “controlled environment,” essentially limiting teams to the hotel, the nearby convention center for practices and the minor league baseball stadium across the street for a chance to get some fresh air.
All teams were declared healthy at Tuesday night’s deadline for allowing schools to be replaced in the bracket. Once that passed, however, there were no substitutes allowed.
The NCAA had said it would allow a team that showed up with as few as five players to take the floor. In VCU’s case, NCAA spokesman David Worlock wrote in an email to The Associated Press: “With potential risks to all involved in the game, we could not guarantee or be comfortable that five or more players would be available without risk.”
That means Oregon’s path got a bit easier; the Ducks now only would need to win five games, instead of the usual six, to cut down the nets and celebrate a title. Waiting on Monday will be Iowa, the West’s No. 2 seed.
“This isn’t the way we wanted to advance, but we are excited to be moving on,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said.
During one 26-day stretch this season, his team had just five practices and a single game because of the sorts of coronavirus issues that interrupted so many aspects of life.
And, yes, this edition of the NCAAs already had seen signs of trouble before Saturday.
In the days leading up to the tournament, a half-dozen referees who went to dinner together before checking into their hotel were all sent home because one tested positive.
Last week, Virginia and Kansas — proud programs with past national championships—both pulled out of their conference tournaments. Virginia didn’t arrive in Indianapolis until Friday, making it the last team to get there, because it needed to clear quarantine protocols back home, and the unusual preparation couldn’t have helped the fourth-seeded Cavaliers, who were upset by Ohio on Saturday.
The first full day of action went off without a hitch Friday. Then Day 2 was well underway when a terse news release arrived: “The NCAA and the committee regret that VCU’s student-athletes and coaching staff will not be able to play in a tournament in which they earned the right to participate.”
The NCAA said it made the decision to drop VCU from the competition in consultation with the local health department.
This wasn’t the first coronavirus issue of the season for the Rams: A positive test in January forced them to halt basketball activities and postpone a game against Davidson. But VCU resumed practice two days later and made it through the rest of the regular season without problems.
The Rams lost the Atlantic 10 title game but made it into the tournament as an at-large team. They were 19-7 heading into Saturday.
Now their postseason is over, without the chance to actually play in the Big Dance.
“It’s a reminder that we just have to stay safe,” Southern California coach Andy Enfield said after his team’s win over Drake. “And sometimes, the COVID takes twists and turns. They’re unexpected. And so I’m very sorry to hear that.”
Kansas coach Bill Self, whose team also won Saturday, called the situation “high anxiety for everything.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s 2 o’clock in the morning, (as) soon as we get a text message from the (testing) company we’ll get group texts going,” Self said. “I’m getting messages from the trainer at 2 o’clock, and I’m awake, getting ready to get the text.”