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Mike Lopresti | | March 21, 2021

COVID-19 hands NCAA tournament more unwelcome moments — this time an early exit for VCU

Committee chair Mitch Barnhart on VCU no-contest, what's next

Now there’s a new sense of urgency about safety at the NCAA tournament. A new sense of why all those rules are there, all those signs, all those security guards, no matter who grouses about them.

At 10 o’clock Saturday night, there was an emptiness at Indiana Farmers Coliseum where a basketball game should have been. It was supposed to be No. 7 seed Oregon vs. No. 10 VCU, the last game of the first round. Looked like a good one, but we’ll never know.

What we know is that sometime in the past few days the positive tests started coming back for the traveling party of the VCU Rams and they didn’t stop until there was nothing left to do but tell them it was time to quit before they ever started. It is one of the most unfortunate messages ever given to a team in the NCAA tournament.

“Heartbroken,” was the word used by Ed McLaughlin, director of athletics, in a release. Here was another one. “Devastated.” And here was coach Mike Rhoades: “Life isn’t always fair, but it’s about how you deal with it and move forward.”

LIVE COVERAGE: Follow all NCAA tournament action

So what happened, after five days in the bubble? Did they bring the virus with them on the bus when they came from Dayton and the Atlantic 10 championship game loss to St. Bonaventure? Lots of people apparently at that hotel lobby in Dayton. Nobody knows for sure. Whoever knows for sure about COVID?

"We've been tested every day for the past three weeks,” Rhoades said. “But within the past 48 hours we've received multiple positive tests.”

This is a shock, but then again it isn’t. The NCAA has long had this exact situation on its list of things to plan for but hope they never happened. That’s why all the work went into the replacement team policy. That’s why the endless pages of risk mitigation proposals and policies. But Oregon now advances in a way no team ever has, not in 82 NCAA tournaments. To have gotten away clean with no such event as this would have been great, everyone agreed.

But what everyone also knew was that bad things could happen. A bad thing just did.

So VCU’s season ends the way it began. The Rams’ first two games were canceled. So were two more in December. There were four postponements in January and three more in February — many of them because of the opponent’s virus issues. They never had the prolonged pauses that so many teams endured. They came to Indianapolis having played 26 games; all in all, not bad for 2021. But now they’re in the record book in a way no team would ever want.

UPSET TRACKER: Relive every upset from the 2021 NCAA tournament

The pandemic has bitten VCU before. The Rams were on the Barclays Center court in Brooklyn on March 12 of 2020, minutes from tipoff in the Atlantic 10 tournament against Massachusetts, when word came that the tournament had been shut down.

Rhoades ended up walking back to the hotel with UMass coach Matt McCall at the exact time they should have been competing against one another; a surreal moment on a surreal day. It seems like the world has traveled light years since then, and college basketball with it. But COVID is still here. And this was a lot worse than being pulled off the court of a conference tournament.

Dan Gavitt, the NCAA vice president for basketball, has told anyone who would listen for months that his cherished goal was to get all 67 games played in this tournament. Now he’ll have to settle for 66, and just hope it stops there. That’s all anyone can do in the age of COVID. Hope, and make sure you’re doing it in a mask.

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