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NCAA cancels March Madness, all winter and spring championships amid COVID-19 fears

CU Buffs’ expected bid to Big Dance canceled

McKinley Wright IV and the Colorado Buffaloes should face a competitive schedule in 2020-21. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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LAS VEGAS — The early exit by the Colorado Buffaloes from the Pac-12 Conference tournament has suddenly become a minor issue in the tumultuous world of college basketball.

And the Buffs’ highly-anticipated return to the Big Dance, even after a forgettable late-season swoon, will have to wait for another year.

A dramatic and unprecedented turn of events culminated on Thursday afternoon with the NCAA announcing the cancellation of its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments due to concerns regarding the nationwide spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). March Madness has given way to March sadness, yet the ramifications hardly ended in the hoops arenas.

The cancellation of the basketball tournaments added another layer to a national sports landscape thrown into chaos by the coronavirus scare. The NBA, NHL, and MLS suspended play indefinitely, as did Major League Baseball. It will be the first year the men’s tournament will not be held since its inception in 1939.

The NCAA’s move arrived hours after the respective basketball leagues, including the Pac-12 Conference, suspended play from their postseason tournaments, and one day after the NCAA said the basketball tournaments would proceed next week without fans in the stands. With Thursday’s announcement, the NCAA took those precautions several steps further than simply announcing the premature end of the basketball season, declaring that no winter or spring championships will be held for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year.

For CU, that includes the NCAA women’s lacrosse tournament, the NCAA golf finals, and the outdoor track and field championships. It also included the indoor track and field championships, which were set to begin Friday in New Mexico, and the skiing national championships, which had reached the midpoint of its competitions in Montana before getting halted by Thursday’s announcement. For college athletics in general, the move spelled the end of the Frozen Four, College World Series, and all other athletic events.

“I try to control what I can control, and I can’t control this,” said CU basketball coach Tad Boyle, roughly two hours before the tournament cancellation became official. “We’re just going to go along with it and deal with what happens.”

What happened was the end of a 21-11 season full of memorable moments soured by a season-ending five-game losing streak, which was capped by particularly listless 82-68 loss against Washington State late Wednesday night in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament.

The Buffs remained in line for an NCAA Tournament bid — the program’s first since 2016 and the fifth in 10 seasons under Boyle — but instead will hit the offseason prematurely while pondering what went wrong down the stretch.

After defeating USC at home on Feb. 20, the Buffs were 21-6 and firmly in the hunt for the Pac-12 regular season championship. A second-half collapse against UCLA two days later began a losing streak that continued with road losses against Cal, Stanford, and Utah. It ended Wednesday night, as the sixth-seeded Buffs led for only a scant few minutes early before getting run out of T-Mobile Arena by the 11th-seeded WSU Cougars.

The team that handed Dayton, which might have been a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, one of its two losses on an overtime buzzer-beater by D’Shawn Schwartz on Dec. 21 in Chicago enters the postseason attempting to address the issues that led to the late swoon. The most immediate question will be the future of junior forward Tyler Bey, who is projected as a possible second-round pick in most mock NBA drafts if he opts to forgo his senior season. However, the current hiatus on the NBA calendar could shake up the pre-draft workout process.

Point guard McKinley Wright IV also is a candidate for leaving early to go pro, though his NBA draft prospects are far more tenuous than Bey’s. On paper, the Buffs are set to return everyone except senior role players Lucas Siewert and Shane Gatling, but rare is the spring without at least one unexpected roster departure. Freshman guard Keeshawn Barthelemy, who redshirted this season, and in-state recruits Luke O’Brien (Columbine) and Dominique Clifford (Vanguard) will join the mix as well.

Siewert ended his career ranked sixth all-time at CU in games played (130), sixth in career 3-point field goal percentage (.384), and eighth in made 3-pointers (140).