UCLA deals with loss of tournament experiences for its basketball teams
It was a wakeup call that made them want to fall back into a deep slumber, hoping it was all just an unimaginable dream.
UCLA men’s basketball players were roused inside their team hotel Thursday morning, learning they were headed home from the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas without having lost a game. The Bruins wouldn’t even get to play in their quarterfinal scheduled for that evening at T-Mobile Arena against California.
For the first time in its 81 year history, the NCAA basketball tournament was canceled as the sports world continues efforts to control the coronavirus.
“We went and woke them up and told them we’re out of here, they canceled it,” Bruins coach Mick Cronin said, “we’re going to go eat breakfast and get on the plane.”
More crushing news would come a few hours later as part of a shock wave impacting every UCLA team participating in winter and spring sports.
Cronin learned from a reporter’s text message upon landing at Los Angeles International Airport that the NCAA tournament had been called off because of concerns related to the coronavirus outbreak, an unprecedented development in the history of college sports.
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“The bus ride from LAX back to campus was silent,” Cronin said. “Everybody’s in shock.”
Cronin gathered his players inside the Mo Ostin Center to deliver a message to a team that would not play on despite having won 11 of its last 14 games, positioning itself for an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament.
“I told them, ‘If this is the worst thing that happens in their life, they’re going to have a great life,’ ” Cronin said. “That being said, I feel for them. It’s tough. It’s terrible for them because they put in such hard work.”
Cronin said he felt especially bad for fifth-year seniors Prince Ali and Alex Olesinski, who had given so much to the team and would never put on a UCLA jersey again. He also regretted that his team would not be rewarded for its growth over the season’s last two months, when it went from a tie for last place in the Pac-12 to second in the conference standings.
“We’ve been on such a magic-carpet-ride run from oblivion to probably making the NCAA tournament,” Cronin said, “we’ve been having a lot of fun and then all of a sudden it’s over.”
But did it have to end? Did officials make the right call in halting postseason college basketball for the first time since the inaugural NCAA tournament was staged in 1939?
“I don’t know if they had any choice,” Cronin said. “I think their only other option would have been to buy a week and see if they could have come up with a contingency plan.”
Cronin said he half-heartedly scouted the opening-round Pac-12 tournament game between Cal and Stanford, figuring the tournament was probably going to be canceled after officials said no fans would be allowed into the arena for the remaining games.
“I’ll be honest with you, I had an eerie feeling watching the Cal-Stanford game that it didn’t matter who [won],” Cronin said. “Even before that, I just had a bad feeling. To me, once they said no fans, it’s over. I never thought it was going to happen.”
The coach said he reached out to a handful of friends after it was announced that fans would be barred from the arena, asking who was going to protect players who seemed to be putting themselves at risk of contracting the virus by touching the same ball rack, sharing the same locker room and sitting in the same chairs on the dais after games.
Compounding the situation, those same players seemed uncertain about the severity of the virus they were trying to avoid.
“They’re terribly disappointed they’re not playing,” Cronin said, “but then part of them, it’s like, hey, can I even go outside, coach?”
As part of protective measures, the school announced that all practices and team activities would be suspended through at least March 29; on- and off-campus recruiting and recruiting-related travel would be suspended until further notice; and on- and off-campus camps and clinics would be suspended until further notice.
Meanwhile, other UCLA teams also grappled with the realization that their seasons were over. The baseball, softball and women’s beach volleyball teams, all national championship contenders, won’t be able to add to the school’s massive haul of titles.
Cori Close, coach of the 10th-ranked women’s basketball team that was vying for its first Final Four appearance, learned that the NCAA tournament had been canceled from her smartphone.
USC senior Nick Rakocevic wanted to end his college basketball career in the NCAA tournament. Instead, he learned it had been canceled while on a bus leaving Las Vegas.
Close had girded her team for the possibility earlier in the day as worries over the coronavirus grew, but seeing the official announcement only deepened her sadness. Her immediate thought was of redshirt senior Japreece Dean having completed her final practice as a Bruin.
“Dang it,” Close said as the reality set in.
The announcement wiped out a season that included a program-record 16-0 start. The Bruins (26-5) were one win from tying the second-highest total in school history and tying the most wins for a season under Close. They were likely to have been selected to host first- and second-round games in the NCAA tournament.
The UCLA women’s gymnastics team was also contemplating an unhappy ending, its senior day scheduled for Saturday having been called off as well as the NCAA regionals the school was set to host the first weekend in April.
Nine seniors, including Olympic gold medalists Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian, were left to bid their fans a virtual farewell.
“no words,” Kocian tweeted above a statement from the NCAA announcing that its winter and spring championships would no longer be held. “can’t believe it’s over just like that.”
Times staff writer Thuc Nhi Nguyen contributed to this report.
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