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Mike Lopresti | | March 9, 2023

Thursday's clash between Michigan and Rutgers takes us back to the wild world that was March 2020

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CHICAGO (Ill.) — It’s Thursday at the Big Ten tournament and the first game is Michigan vs. Rutgers. The players are on the court warming up, the bands are playing, the crowd is flowing into the United Center. All is well.

These are two teams fighting to get off the NCAA tournament bubble and each desperately needs a win. “They understood the magnitude of this game,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard will say later. “Rutgers was aware of their situation as well.” But wait a second. Weren’t these same two teams scheduled to face each other in the first game on Thursday of another Big Ten tournament?

Right. March 12, 2020. The day college basketball, and in many ways America, went dark.

How the Big Ten tournament is such a very different place this Thursday afternoon. Rutgers would end up rolling over Michigan 62-50 in an impressive hey-look-at-us moment for the selection committee. The 20-12 Scarlet Knights left the court to cheers. “Definitely it’s March,” Rutgers guard Caleb McConnell would say. “Forty minutes gets you 40 (more) minutes.”

Three years ago, when they left the court after a game that never happened, all they heard was silence. There would be no more 40 minutes, for anyone.

The ominous storm clouds had actually started to gather the Wednesday night before back in 2020. The NBA announced it was pausing its season after Utah’s Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID. The Big Ten got in two games but alarm bells were going off. Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg became ill during a loss to Indiana — turned out to be the flu — and was hustled out of the arena for fear of COVID. The Cornhuskers were kept isolated after the game and the media was not even allowed on that end of Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The world suddenly seemed to be spinning the wrong direction.

“This is uncharted territory, and it’s serious,” Indiana coach Archie Miller said that Wednesday night. “We’ll brace ourselves for what happens next.”

Overnight, the Big Ten announced fans would not be allowed into the arena the next day, only family and friends. That meant Michigan and Rutgers would be playing at noon before a mostly deserted Fieldhouse.

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Brian Boesch and Jerry Recco were there that day, just as they are this Thursday. Boesch is the radio play-by-play voice for Michigan, Recco the same for Rutgers.

Boesch: “I remember at the team breakfast when I interviewed Coach (Juwan) Howard for our radio pre-game, talking to people like, are we going to do this? Yeah, it’ll be fine. And an hour later I was talking to the same group and it was like, `we don’t know if we’re going to play this.’”

Recco: “On the bus ride over we had heard there was a chance the game would be delayed, not canceled.”

The players took the floor for warmup shooting in an eerily deserted arena, some of them pumping their arms to rev up an imaginary audience that was not there. Kids being kids.

Recco: “I remember them looking around like, what’s happening?”

Boesch: “Everyone was kind of looking at each other, players to broadcasters to media folks. This is weird, right?”

Meanwhile, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren was in frantic conversation with university presidents, athletic directors, health experts, other leagues. The entire sports landscape was in a panic. Warren finally made the same decision his colleagues in other conferences made. Everything — everything — had to stop.

Boesch: “I remember two things vividly. One about 10:45, a woman walked up to us from the Big Ten — you know those cards with rosters on each side? — she raced down and took them all away. It was as if she was told those have COVID, you need to get rid of them.

“The second thing I remember is we got this statement from the Big Ten about 11:45 saying the tournament’s canceled. My hope as a radio guy was just trying to get our affiliates to the top of the hour in order for them to join regularly scheduled programming, and they were ushering us (out) because nobody knew, nobody had any idea how to handle it. We all had to be shepherded off. They didn’t want us in this open area, they wanted us to race into a little small room to stay there for a while.

“I have to admit I was a little bit scared. I love calling these games. It is the joy of my career. But that day I didn’t really want to call a game because I didn’t know what was going to happen. Nobody did.”

Recco: “We were out doing a pre-game show and even at that point we still thought they were going to play. Until security people said get up and get out.

“The night before everything had been so normal and 12 hours later the world changed.”

The Scarlet Knights and Wolverines had nothing left to do but get dressed and head home to uncertain futures. Warren met the media and explained the chaos of the morning, and how it came to pass that two groups of young basketball players had to be yanked off the court. But it was like that everywhere. The Southland Conference pulled the plug literally as two teams were getting ready to tipoff. The Big East stopped with Creighton and St. John’s in their halftime locker rooms at Madison Square Garden.

“I spent a lot of time thinking through this, meditating on it, and really this morning praying on what is the right thing to do,” Warren said. “These are big decisions. You don’t want to rush these decisions. It would have been great if it could have been two hours earlier this morning, but it wasn’t.”

In the end, though, he said the decision was “crystal clear.”

Boesch and his crew packed up their equipment and drove north toward home. “We had probably just crossed into Michigan,” he said, “when we heard the NCAA tournament was canceled.”

Recco flew back to Rutgers with the team. “We got on the plane, I don’t think anybody expected anything other than, just let’s get to work the next day and start preparing for next week. When we landed and everybody got to their phones you heard a collective groan. When we landed the NCAA tournament was canceled.

“Aside from a terrible loss, I’ve never heard a bus ride from the airport to the university as quiet. They were devastated. They were going (to the NCAA tournament), they knew they were going and all of a sudden it was taken away.”

Three years later, the Michigan-Rutgers game goes on as scheduled and the consequences are what they’re supposed to be at a tournament, when a pandemic is not banging at the gates. Dejection for the losing team who could not afford this defeat for its NCAA tournament hopes. “A tough loss for this team, for this coaching staff and also the university,” Howard says about his 17-15 Wolverines. Elation — and maybe a bit of relief — for Rutgers, beating a team it had lost to 16 times in 17 previous meetings. “Just a good old grind-you-down Rutgers win,” McConnell calls it. “This is the type of games we win." And just in time. Rutgers had dropped six of its last eight, and coach Steve Pikiell, to make a point to his players about ignoring the fickle chatter from the public, had bashed a cell phone. “You don’t want to get me started on that,” he says of what social media can do to a team.

The recent slump he assigns to the hazards of life in the brutal Big Ten. “There’s no team this year in this league that didn’t go through a stretch like that.”

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He was the Rutgers coach that day in 2020, too. The trajectory to this Thursday is too powerful to miss. He does a television interview before this game, just like 2020. Only this time the interviewer is next to him. In 2020, “he was standing about 18 feet away from me.”

So yeah, he is aware of the deja vu of this day. “Thankfully it’s a very different world. I did have a flashback to that, and thank God that’s in the rearview mirror.”

He remembers the pain and frustration. Back then, Rutgers had not been in the NCAA tournament in 28 years, and the Scarlet Knights were a lock to make it. But then they found out there would be no tournament for anyone. This Thursday, they might have pretty much guaranteed their reservation. How did he get his players through the recent hard times and outside criticism?

“Smashed the phones.”

Everyone laughed at that answer. There was not much laughter when Rutgers and Michigan crossed past on Thursday of the Big Ten tournament three years ago.

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