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Installment #14: Teams Sent Home, but the Beat Goes On

What a championship week last week was! It has been just over a year--370 days if my math is correct--since Utah Jazz all-star center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. Utah's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder was stopped, the NBA promptly suspended it's season, and there was this feeling that something strange and scary was happening to sports and the world.

The next day, other professional sports leagues followed the NBA, postponing their seasons indefinitely. All of men's and women's winter and spring college sports were canceled. It was March 11-12, 2020, and the conference tournaments were really just getting started. But because of the hasty cancelation of all winter and spring sporting events, no more conference championships and no NCAA tournament the following week. Something had happened that I never imagined. Sports had come to an abrupt halt as the world scrambled to figure out what to do with this novel coronavirus.

Fast forward a year later, and the coronavirus is still with us. Sports, like other industries, shut down for a few months. Then due to the loss of money and perhaps the restlessness of players, teams went back into action lots of times in empty stadiums and arenas. The goal, to keep everyone safe and at the same time crown a champion.

So although the news that began coming down last week regarding several Division I teams was disappointing, I was not too surprised. On Thursday morning, it was announced that the Duke Blue Devils were being forced to bow out of this year’s ACC tournament after they posted a positive COVID test among a member of the program's top-tier personnel. Due to Duke and ACC Medical Advisory Group Health, Safety, and Contact Tracing protocols, the student athletes of the Duke University men's basketball team, and now lots of the school's other student population, are currently in quarantine.

The Duke Blue Devils entered the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament with a record of 11-11 and the No. 10 seed. I for one thought they would have to win every game in the tourney to make it to the big dance and was skeptical because no team in ACC tournament history had ever won five games in five days. But they beat Boston College 86-51 on Tuesday. Then they pulled away from the No. 7 seed Louisville Cardinals on the way to a 14-point win on Wednesday night. Things were definitely looking positive and being the blue blood program that the Duke Blue Devils are, I started to believe that if Duke could just make it to the conference semi finals or finals, they might sneak into the NCAA tournament.

But not to be. It was after the Louisville game that the positive coronavirus test was discovered and at 13-11, Duke's season is over. The Blue Devils will miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995. As for the Florida State Seminoles, who the Blue Devils were set to play in the quarter finals on Thursday, they were forfeited into the conference semi finals where they beat the North Carolina Tar Heels on Friday night.

Then on Friday morning, it was reported that the Virginia Cavaliers would also be exiting the ACC tournament following a positive test found in their program. The Cavaliers had the first two days of the ACC tournament off. Then they edged the Syracuse Orange on a buzzer beater on Thursday afternoon in the tournament quarter finals. They were all set to take on the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the semis, but the Jackets instead automatically advanced to the conference finals where they beat Florida State 80-75 on Saturday night. It was Georgia Tech's first ACC tournament title since 1983.

Unlike Duke, the Virginia Cavaliers actually have a future to play for in March, 2021. They currently have a record of 17-6 and were the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament after winning the conference regular season championship. They are a No. 4 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament and will be able to compete if they can keep posting negative test results and have at least five healthy players in Indianapolis, the site of this year's men's tournament. Since COVID canceled last year's NCAA tournament, Virginia remains the reigning national champion after winning it all in 2019. Will they be able to defend their title? Guess we'll see.

All season, the college basketball schedule has been, iffy for lack of a better word. I would check the schedule in the morning to find out who all was supposed to play that day. By the evening, lots of games would be postponed or canceled because COVID-19 had shown it's ugly head among one of the teams. Some days up to thirty or forty games would be rescheduled or canceled altogether. Some teams went for weeks throughout the season without playing a single game. It made me wonder what would happen when anywhere between ten and fifteen teams would cluster together in their respective conference tournaments.

There were other Division I teams that had to excuse themselves from their conference championships. The Northern Iowa Panthers of the Missouri Valley Conference had a quarter finals game against Drake canceled on March 5. Then about two hours after the UVA news, I found out that the Kansas Jayhawks have left the Big 12 tournament. Kansas was supposed to play the Texas Longhorns in the conference semi finals on Friday. But the Longhorns advanced to the finals, where they beat Oklahoma State 91-86 on Saturday night for their first Big 12 tournament title.

So, teams were sent home last week, but tournament champions were crowned. In addition to the aforementioned, on Sunday, both the SEC (Alabama Crimson Tide) and the Big 10 (Illinois Fighting Illini) crowned champions without a hitch. After that, selection Sunday took place and the field of 68 is now set. The NCAA tournament, god willing, will start with four games on Thursday. If a team is not healthy enough to play, they will either be replaced or the team they were supposed to play will be automatically advanced to the next round. Not sure exactly how it will work. But one thing seems certain. Unlike last year when the uncertainty of the coronavirus shut down everything, there will be a national champion crowned this year. Even if a team has to get forfeited into one.

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