In a matter of minutes on the morning of March 12, college basketball came to an abrupt end across the country as the novel coronavirus shut down sporting events nationwide.
For the Montana Grizzlies men’s basketball team, that happened at CenturyLink Arena in Boise, Idaho, as the team prepared for shoot-around ahead of its Big Sky Conference quarterfinal game against Idaho State on that Thursday morning.
Montana head coach Travis DeCuire got a phone call at around 10:15 a.m. from athletic director Kent Haslam detailing the news and the Grizzlies slowly filed back to their bus, stunned and quiet. The team headed home the next morning, arriving in Missoula the day they hoped to play an evening Big Sky Conference semifinal game.
Everyone in the league office hoped the game would be played too, even as the conference was finalizing plans to allow for a reduced number of spectators on that Thursday morning.
“That was a whirlwind of a day,” Big Sky Conference commissioner Tom Wistrcill said during a media conference call on Monday afternoon. “We went from the highest of highs to a lot of lows.“
The events that led to the Big Sky tournament being canceled just before 10:15 a.m. were indeed from winds arriving from every direction. Play in the women’s tournament started on March 9, despite more than 50 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Washington and California at the time.
No confirmed cases, however, were detected in Idaho until after the tournament had been canceled.
This was the reasoning for the conference to, at least initially, start the tournament as normal, with no restrictions of any kind. In addition, with two Idaho schools — Idaho and Idaho State — both at the tournament, additional information was available from those campuses and the Big Sky had a direct line, through those schools, to the Idaho State Health Board.
There was also a doctor the Big Sky had hired to oversee the tournament that was part of the process.
“We got our guidance from (the doctor the Big Sky had hired), talking to other medical professionals and then also, having two schools in Idaho, we had a direct link to the state health board in Idaho and other medical professionals there who were working with personnel at Idaho and Idaho State to help make that decision,” Wistrcill said. “That’s why we felt comfortable at that point to play through Wednesday night, with all the fans.”
Following the final games on Wednesday night, Wistrcill met with the Big Sky staff and began to formulate a plan. The NCAA had decided it would ban spectators at the national basketball tournament earlier in the day, a moment that left him shaken.
Wistrcill said he had been text messaging with several members of the NCAA selection committee and was receiving updates from a variety of other college conference commissioners. He said that it seemed as if all conference tournaments would be played without spectators.
That evening, the Big Sky team formulated several plans, one being a pass list allowing student-athletes and coaches to allow six people of their choosing into the game. Media and officials would be allowed, but otherwise that was it.
At 9 a.m. Mountain Time on Thursday, the Big Sky held a President’s meeting, with representatives from all 11 schools at the tournament. For 45 minutes the different plans — including ones with media only and even allowing some fans — were discussed. Finally, the conference decided to go ahead with its plan, which they needed to finalize before Eastern Washington and Sacramento State tipped off in the first quarterfinal at noon.
Then, after that had been decided, Wistrcill started hearing some truly shocking news.
“In one of the most stunning turn of events in my 27-year career in college athletics, conferences started canceling the tournaments,” he said.
The Ivy League, the Patriot League, the Big Ten Conference and the American Athletic Conference were some of the first, followed by the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12, which both came at 10:08 a.m. At that point, the athletic directors were all phoned and a decision was made to cancel the tournament.
“It really was a difficult time as we thought about our basketball teams, the seniors, both men's and women’s teams that didn’t get the chance to ride out their tournament dreams,” Wistrcill said. “Obviously the health and safety of everyone involved, including to all those on the campuses our student-athletes were heading back to, was more important than any game.”
The reactions were obviously mixed, with many, he said, still questioning much about the disease heading into the tournament.
"There were a lot of questions at that point about, ‘Is thing real, how contagious really is this virus, is this something that’s going to pass by in a day or two, or is it going to be weeks and months?’” Wistrcill said.
The NBA had suspended operations on that Wednesday, following a positive test by a Utah Jazz player. Even earlier, Italian soccer leagues, since suspended, had begun to play with no fans on March 4.
“Certainly an interesting time because there was no perfect, no one had all the answers, the doctors are much smarter about this right now and know a lot more about the virus, about how it’s spreading today than anyone knew on Thursday morning.”
The first case in Washington was back in January. The first death in Washington was Feb. 29.
No cases have yet to be connected to the Big Sky Conference tournament, Wistrcill said, and he was happy with how the conference responded.
“Hindsight’s always 20-20. I think with the information we had, we handled it very well. We had fliers posted all over the building. We had a lot of hand sanitizer. I think people were well versed in the fact that this has the potential to be something very serious, even though it didn’t feel real at the time … I think with the information we had, we handled it in the best way we could.
“There’s always things you might look back and say, ‘Hey we should have done that, that, or that,’ but I’m not going to second guess things.”