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Uncertainty on and off the court prevails as Pac-12 basketball tournament begins

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UCLA guard Jules Bernard drives to the basket against USC forward Onyeka Okongwu on March 7 at Galen Center.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

As he pondered rapidly growing coronavirus fears on the eve of the Pac-12 Conference basketball tournament, USC guard Jonah Mathews considered the fate of a massive concert scheduled for next month as instructive.

“If they haven’t canceled Coachella,” Mathews said Monday, “it’s not that serious.”

On Tuesday, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was set to be postponed until October.

It’s serious.

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Pac-12 officials nevertheless announced their conference tournament that opens Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena would go on as scheduled while adding the disclaimer “at this time,” indicating the fluid nature of the situation. The Ivy League canceled its men’s and women’s conference tournaments earlier in the day, saying it did so to protect athletes and fans while halting the spread of the virus.

Meanwhile, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine requested that all indoor athletic events in his state be held with no spectators other than athletes, parents and “others essential to the game,” potentially meaning that fans would not be allowed to attend NCAA tournament games scheduled to be held next week in Dayton and Cleveland. The Mid-American Conference announced Tuesday that the rest of its men’s and women’s tournaments in Cleveland would be closed to the public.
The Big West Conference followed suit, closing its men’s (Honda Center) and women’s (Long Beach Pyramid and Honda Center) tournaments to the public.

A look at how sports leagues, including the NFL, MLB, MLS, NBA and NHL, are responding to the coronavirus outbreak.

The media that descends upon Las Vegas this week for the Pac-12 tournament also will be fewer than usual. The Seattle Times is not sending Percy Allen, its longtime Washington basketball beat writer, or any columnists as a protective measure. Seattle Times sports editor Paul Barrett said in an email to the Los Angeles Times that his newspaper had suspended all non-essential travel “with the health and safety of our employees in mind,” hiring a freelancer to cover the games.

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Asked about writers remaining in Seattle, a hotbed of virus contamination, Barrett said, “Our policy is intended to minimize any potential impacts to our employees, based on guidance we have received.”

The Pac-12 said Tuesday afternoon that media would be barred from locker rooms while being given access to players and coaches at a separate designated area, a measure similar to those enacted by the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer aimed at preventing close contact that might enable the spread of the virus. The Pac-12 also said it would enact enhanced cleaning protocols inside T-Mobile Arena and provided additional access to hand sanitizers.

UCLA freshman guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. said he would take the recommended steps to protect himself from the virus, frequently washing his hands and coughing into his shoulder.

The Pac-12 said Tuesday afternoon that media would be barred from locker rooms while being given access to players and coaches at a separate designated area, a measure similar to those enacted by the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer aimed at preventing close contact that might enable the spread of the virus. The Pac-12 also said it would enact enhanced cleaning protocols inside T-Mobile Arena and provided additional access to hand sanitizers.

The Bruins reduced their potential exposure by taking a charter flight to Las Vegas, eliminating contact with other travelers in the security line, gate area and on board its aircraft. USC, originally scheduled to fly commercially, switched to charter. Both teams are scheduled to play their first tournament games in the quarterfinal round Thursday.

For now, the opening game at noon Wednesday featuring eighth-seeded Oregon State and ninth-seeded Utah will proceed as usual. Mathews said he hated to contemplate what it might be like to play in front of an empty arena if fans weren’t allowed to attend.

“That would be terrible. Terrible,” Mathews said. “I’ve never had to play with nobody there really, except in Pullman, Washington, I guess. But there’s some people there, at least. If there’s none, that would kill the whole vibe of the game for sure.”

Mathews was alluding to the small crowds that typically dot the stands inside Washington State’s Beasley Coliseum, where the decibel level approaches that of a college library.

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Pac-12 officials would not say whether virus worries had affected projected attendance for a tournament that featured plenty of intrigue even without a global pandemic.

Last-place Washington finished as one of the conference’s hottest teams, sweeping the Arizona schools on the road last week to earn a rematch with Arizona in the first round Wednesday afternoon.

“It’s crazy, isn’t it?” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said of the wide-open nature of the tournament. “It’s unbelievable. Right now, you’ve got seven teams on the NCAA tournament board [projected to qualify] out of 12. You’ve got Oregon State, a senior-laden team and you have your last-place team [Washington] with two [NBA] lottery picks. So that would say right off the bat there’s nine teams that could easily win it.”

Cronin said it reminded him of coaching Cincinnati in the Big East Conference, when the number of quality teams ran deep and ninth-seeded Connecticut prevailed in 2011 on the way to the national championship.

Expect the unexpected could be the theme once more this week given so much uncertainty on and off the court.

“We’ll let the experts try to figure this out,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “We’re just going to go play until they tell us not to.”

Times staff writer Ryan Kartje contributed to this report.


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