KANSAS CITY, Mo. — World War II couldn’t kill the NCAA Tournament. But the coronavirus did on Thursday afternoon.
Sitting in the hotel bar at the Kansas City Downtown Marriott — because that’s what sportswriters do when they’re writing and there isn’t a game going on — I got the alert about 3:30 p.m. central, like everyone else did, and it came just hours after the Big 12 Tournament canceled the rest of its remaining games.
There will be no March Madness this year. The NCAA canceled the tournament, both men’s and women’s, citing the spread of the coronavirus as the cause.
If you’re a college basketball fan, you feel the hurt. If you’re a college basketball fan with an alma mater that was prepared to make noise in the NCAA Tournament, like my Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks, it hurts even more.
And the pain tonight must be palpable in Lawrence, Kansas, and Waco, Texas.
Let’s be clear. This is sports pain we’re talking about. The kind of pain that lasts in a brief burst and eventually recedes into the back of your mind. You live your life. You do your thing. It stays with you, but it remains in the background, and it only comes up when prompted.
Such as, oh I don’t know, every time that “One Shining Moment” montage comes up on television?
That’s the sports pain the Kansas Jayhawks and the Baylor Bears will have to live with for eternity.
The record books will show that the Jayhawks won the Big 12 title in 2020. I’m not sure if the conference will simply award the Jayhawks the Big 12 Tournament title in absentia or not, but the record books will show this was a great team.
Center Udoka Azubuike was the league’s Player of the Year, an All-Big 12 First Team pick and an All-Big 12 Defensive Team member. Guard Devon Dotson was All-Big 12 First Team, guard Marcus Garrett was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and an All-Big 12 Third Team selection. Ochai Agbaji was a Big 12 Honorable Mention and Christian Braun was an All-Big 12 Freshman.
The Jayhawks hadn’t lost since Jan. 11. They vanquished the No. 1 team in the nation at the time, Baylor, in a huge game in Waco last month. They were poised to not only be a No. 1 seed, but the No. 1 seed in the entire NCAA Tournament. In a truly wacky college basketball season, the Jayhawks would have been solid favorites to win it all and bring another national championship banner to Allen Fieldhouse.
What might have been, indeed. But you could say the same thing about Baylor.
Oh, the Bears. This season was complete magic. Baylor had never done anything like this before. Remember back in the season’s first week when they lost to Washington in Anchorage, Alaska? It took the Bears more than three months to lose again. Along the way, they set the record for the longest winning streak in the Big 12 (23 games), their best start to conference play in their history (13-0) and ascended to No. 1 in the country and remained there the longest of any team in 2019-20.
Scott Drew, rightly so, was the Big 12 Coach of the Year. Guard Davion Mitchell was the league’s Newcomer of the Year. Devonte Bandoo was the Big 12’s Sixth Man. Forward Freddie Gillespie was the league’s Most Improved Player. Mitchell, Gillespie, and Vital were all on the Big 12 Defensive Team. Jared Butler was First Team, Gillespie and MaCio Teague were Second Team, while Vital and Mitchell were Third Team.
Find me a better Baylor basketball team (men’s edition)? Go ahead. You can’t. Their 26-4 season will live on forever, even with that stumble at the end. The Bears could have easily put things back together, emerged from the Big 12 Tournament and made a run all the way to Atlanta. I have no doubt.
But, now, we will always have our doubts. We will always have the what-ifs. Those Kansas and Baylor players will have their honors and their incredible seasons, but they’ll never have the chance to show what could have been. No disrespect to West Virginia or Oklahoma or Texas or Texas Tech, the other teams that might have made the tournament. But the Jayhawks and the Bears were favorites to get to the Final Four. They were the Big 12’s ticket to the title this season. You can’t deny that.
And yet, history will, at least on the court. The Associated Press and the Coaches’ Poll may well determine who ‘wins’ the national title this year, and by default, that team could be Kansas, as it was No. 1 in both polls going into the conference tournaments. I wouldn’t begrudge them putting up a banner to commemorate it.
But every year since 1939, the start of the NCAA Tournament, we’ve always let the madness decide who wins the title. But not this year.
This year, the madness of the coronavirus beat everyone. And we only have the memories to take with us to next season.
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