basketball-men-d1 flag

Mike Lopresti | | March 17, 2023

Inside VCU's untimely exit from the 2021 NCAA tournament, as it happened

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports VCU plays Richmond in 2021. Nathan Cayo tries for a layup against VCU's Hason Ward during a February 2021 game in Richmond.

Editor's note: In 2021,'s Mike Lopresti was granted behind-the-scenes access to the operations of the men's DI tournament to chronicle the historic one-site event for the NCAA. One of the most poignant moments of the event was the day the VCU team had to be sent home without playing a game because of an outbreak of positive COVID tests. With the Rams back in the field in 2023, there will be flashbacks to the way they exited their last tournament. What follows is Lopresti's account of that day, written in 2021:

The elevators were waiting at the 16th floor of the JW Marriott.

They had been locked to prevent anyone else on another floor from using them. It was after 10 o’clock on a quiet Sunday morning, and four men boarded the elevators and were taken directly to the lobby. From there they turned left and were led by an NCAA ambassador through a closed Italian restaurant, out a side door and into the sunshine on Washington Street. A large bus was there, already stocked with boxed lunches, snacks, extra peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and coolers of hydration products. Their bags had already been loaded. The team administrator there to help could go no further because he was not allowed to board or accompany them on the 10-hour ride home. “There were a lot of tears,” he would later tell the ambassador. At 10:18 a.m. the bus with two vaccinated drivers pulled away. There would be brief rest stops for the drivers, but the passengers kept far to the rear of the bus and could never get off. That’s why this particular bus was being used, it had a bathroom. Meanwhile, Marriott staff went to work sanitizing the elevators. The hotel rooms in which the players had been staying would not be entered for two days.

And that’s how the VCU Rams departed the 2021 NCAA tournament.

Losing a team to COVID-19 infections had always been one of the (NCAA administrators) Dan Gavitt’s and JoAn Scott’s biggest fears. The dread came in two parts; the anguish for the team involved, and the risk that the virus might start racing elsewhere through the hotel, and the bracket. Everyone knew the week leading up to the first round would be significant as the field gathered in Indianapolis. Having gone through a regular season where the next day was never promised, every coach carried the anxiety of what a phone call or text might bring.

REWIND: 2021 One Shining Moment 

Take Kansas, having to pull out of the Big 12 tournament because of a positive test, and then arriving in Indianapolis hoping nothing else went wrong. “I’m getting texts from the doc and trainer at 2 a.m. when the results come back,” coach Bill Self said of the daily tests. “I’m awake and ready to take the text.”

Take Georgia Tech, soaring after winning the ACC tournament, and then shaken by a positive test result that sidelined conference player of the year Moses Wright for the Yellow Jackets’ first round loss to Loyola. “I can’t even express the pressure and the swing of high to low. It was overwhelming at times,” coach Josh Pastner said. “There’s just no denying it’s literally one day at a time and almost one breath at a time waiting literally for every result every time you’re tested.”

Or take Virginia. The Cavaliers had aborted their appearance in the ACC tournament because of positive tests and remained in Charlottesville the week before the first round, hoping for the all-clear. They finally arrived in Indianapolis Friday afternoon as a No. 4 seed, spent the night in quarantine, squeezed in a practice Saturday, played and lost to 13th-seeded Ohio that evening, and flew home. The 2019 national champions had come and gone in under 48 hours, a title defense that turned into a blur. The Ohio game looked like an upset on paper but all things considered, it wasn’t. “We wanted a chance to play in this tournament,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said after the game. “We got the chance.” Then someone told him about VCU. “What is it,” he asked, “with us Virginia schools?”

At VCU, they will forever wonder that.

The Rams had gone through the regular season without one single confirmed positive test for a player. Obviously, they must have been doing something right as far as risk mitigation. They were playing well, too, and took a 19-6 record into the Atlantic 10 tournament championship game against St. Bonaventure. That was scheduled for the University of Dayton Arena on Selection Sunday, an easy bus drive away from Indianapolis. As most teams do when playing at Dayton, VCU headquartered at a Marriott Courtyard right across the street from the arena. A high school tournament was going on at the same time, and the hotel was very busy. Whether the nightmare that would eventually envelop the Rams was born then and there, no one will ever know.

VCU lost 74-65 despite 21 points from guard Nah’Shon Hyland, the A-10 player of the year. The Rams returned to the Courtyard to shower and watch the NCAA tournament selection show, learning they were seeded 10th in the West region and paired against Oregon. They boarded their bus for the 2 ½-hour ride west to Indianapolis, where they would be on the 16th floor of the JW Marriott. If the weekend crowds at Dayton had been a little unsettling, ahead lay the safety of the controlled environment. “Our mindset was, if we can just get to Indianapolis, if we can get in the bubble, we’re going to be fine,” athletic director Ed McLaughlin said later. “We get there, and within a few days, life unravels.”

The team arrived late Sunday night, took the required COVID-19 tests, then went into quarantine, per NCAA procedure. The Rams had a second test collected the next day and after that came back clear in the evening, they went over to the Convention Center to loosen up and get moving after nearly 22 hours of being stuck in their rooms. The next day they tested at 8:30 a.m., lifted weights at noon, practiced at 1 p.m., and spent time enjoying the outdoors at Victory Field. The tests came back fine. They tested at 1:30 P.M. and practiced at 3 o’clock on Wednesday. The Oregon game was three days away and the excitement was growing.

HISTORY: What March Madness looked like the year you were born

The call came just after midnight. One positive test. The player was retested in his room and put into isolation, and confirmation came back in the early morning hours. The rest of the team was well and VCU practiced Thursday at the Indiana Farmers’ Coliseum, the site of its game. Another test Thursday night returned negative the next morning. The Rams practiced Friday evening and took another test at 10 p.m., 24 hours before tipoff. If that came back OK, they’d be ready to go.

“I wasn’t losing sleep over it yet,” Gavitt said, “but I had it on my radar.”

This call came at 2 a.m. early Saturday morning. Another player had tested positive. The next morning, Jimmy Martelli, the VCU director of basketball operations, was headed for Victory Field to take a walk and think all this through when his phone rang. The team was to assemble on the 16th floor, take reserved elevators and have the entire traveling party retested at 11:30 a.m. Martelli was told they should get word by around 2:30. The players returned to their rooms and were waiting to head for their 3 p.m. shoot-around, with the game not scheduled until nearly 10 o’clock. Martelli got word around 2:30. Two more positives. That made four —  three players and a staff member. Forget any shootaround. Martelli was told there would be a meeting between the NCAA and health department authorities to decide what to do. Coach Mike Rhoades tried to be hopeful. The stated policy of the NCAA was a team needed five healthy players to participate. The Rams had way more than five.

Tick . . . tick . . . tick. Rhoades watched the clock and waited. The players were in their rooms, not fully understanding the cloud that was forming over them. In their minds, they might be down a couple of bodies but they were ready to go. Everyone felt fine. Rhoades called Martelli “every hour on the hour” to ask for news. He finally asked to meet Martelli in the hallway. “What do you think?” the coach asked. Martelli wasn’t certain. “You know how no news is good news? This was no news, I’m not sure,” he said. But he didn’t have a good feeling. He had started contacting the NCAA travel agency for return plans, just in case.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports Nah'Shon Hyland and coach Mike Rhoades at the 2021 Atlantic 10 tournament.From left, Nah'Shon Hyland and Mike Rhoades at the 2021 Atlantic 10 tournament.

The team pre-game meal was sent up to the floor at 6 p.m., as scheduled. Rhoades took that as a good sign. Two blocks away at the Residence Inn, McLaughin — who was not in the bubble — sat in his hotel room waiting. The call came at 6:20 p.m., and on the other line were Gavitt and NCAA Men’s Basketball Committee chair Mitch Barnhart.

“There was some silence on the phone,” McLaughlin said. “Because Danny and I have been friends for so long and he’s such a compassionate human being, I think it probably hurt him as much to call as it did for me to get it. I could tell by his voice where things were going.”

The policy about a team needing only five healthy players didn’t apply, McLaughlin was told. There were too many positives in too short of a time. Clearly, COVID-19 had found a home in the VCU basketball team, and the health officials were no longer comfortable with its participation. Dr. Caine (director of the Marion County Health Department) later would say that was one of the toughest decisions she had to make in the entire month. Scott called it one of the most stressful days of her professional life. “One of those decisions,” Gavitt said, “that you’ll never truly know if it’s the right one or not.”

McLaughlin asked a few questions, hung up, then called his basketball coach who was hanging on every minute.

“They pulled the plug,” McLaughlin said to Rhoades “We’re done.”

There wasn’t a lot of conversation. McLaughlin didn’t need to talk to feel the pain of his coach. “One of those moments,” he said, “where you just take it in and you don’t have to say anything to say a lot.”

It had been 373 days since VCU was pulled off the Barclays Center court at the Atlantic 10 tournament only 20 seconds before player introductions when exploding virus concerns suddenly shut down college basketball. “I would think you’d struggle to find a program in the country that’s had a more bizarre ending to their last two years,” McLaughlin said. “You sort of think to yourself, is the big guy upstairs just messing with us?”

At the hotel, Rhoades took a minute to collect himself and prepare for what he had to do next with his players. “I was the guy who had to tell them their dream of playing in the NCAA tournament was over,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to have been around a lot of strong-willed people. My mother and father taught me that when you have things that don’t go your way in life you handle them straight-on, you handle them with the truth and you lead from the front. It was on me.

“It was absolutely gut-wrenching.”

The first thing he did was call Hyland to his room. “I know how emotional he is,” Rhoades said. “I knew how he was going to take it.” Two minutes later he pulled the team together.

“I just explained to them why we’re waiting up here in the hotel on the 16th floor of the JW Marriott, why we’ve been there all day. They’ve been trying to find a way we can play. I told them it’s a great example of sometimes life just isn’t fair. I wasn’t going to blame anyone or make excuses. There’s no reason for that. We’re going to move forward. I told our guys as bad as this is, there’s more than 500,000 who lost their lives because of this. As much as this hurts the reality of it is, we’re going to be all right.”

Rhoades then went back to his room for some time to himself. He sat on the edge of his bed thinking back on the cruelty of it all. His guys had done nothing wrong, so why? “I keep saying that maybe somebody sneezed in front of our guys at the wrong time. Who knows?” he said. “I didn’t want our guys to see me as distraught as I was, like it’s the end of the world. Because it’s not, even though it feels awful.” He called his family. His daughter is a particularly avid fan and he knew it would be like “talking her off the ledge.”

McLaughlin was going through that in his own room, too. “You just replay things in your head a lot. Are there things you could have done differently? Was it just bad luck? You also try to keep the thought that, let’s make sure this doesn’t take away from the fact our team had a great season. We should have been part of it. We were, but we didn’t get the chance to play.”

He just wished he would have known how this happened for sure. That way VCU could serve as a message to others. Do this, don’t do that. “But there was nothing there,” he said.

Gavitt called Rhoades to offer his sympathy. Rhodes was grateful and just had one request: “If there’s one favor I can ask of you, can you get us out of here tonight? Please? These guys don’t need to be here another night knowing they can’t play.” There was a bit of luck there. The Indiana Pacers were inbound Saturday night, the NCAA would turn that plane around and get the team out by midnight.

VCU held a Zoom media conference at 8 p.m., just about the time the Rams should have been heading to the Coliseum. Rhoades would not duck the outside world because he wanted to stress to anyone who would listen that his team had followed every rule, every inch of protocol. There was already nonsense on Twitter about VCU breaking the bubble. That never happened. McLaughlin spoke on the conference as well. “As a glutton for punishment,” he said later, “I had whatever game on TV. I can’t even remember which one it was. It was surreal.”

The Rams then packed and prepared to leave. McLaughlin wanted to be there but couldn’t travel with them as he was not a tier 1 or 2. The virus cat was out of the bag with VCU but the protocols still had to be followed. He sought out a quiet place away from people for dinner. “It was weird sitting in the restaurant and on the TV at halftime they have your face on the screen,” McLaughlin said.

First Four: VCU was one of the best teams in First Four history, see how well others faired

For the Rams, the sad journey went from the hotel to the airport to the plane to home in Richmond, Va. Lots of people in the traveling party slept, but not Rhoades. “I just kept looking out the window of the plane and the bus going, can you believe this? This is us?” he said. The plane landed around 2:30 a.m. and Gavitt was still awake back in Indianapolis, waiting to hear the Rams made it OK.

The four infected members spent a last night in the hotel before their bus could be ready Sunday morning. When the bus made it to campus Sunday evening, they went straight to a hotel for isolation. By the night Baylor beat Gonzaga for the national championship, all had made it through their 14-day quarantine with no serious issues. They were already thinking about next year. Move forward, as Rhoades said. McLaughlin had received more than 600 texts and emails of support and sympathy from around the county. In Indianapolis, at a store selling the T-shirts of every team in the field, there VCU was, still available for purchase.

And why not? The Rams were indeed a 2021 NCAA Tournament team and always would be. Some might have quickly ditched the gift bag items and other things picked up in Indianapolis, as if to wash away the disappointment. “I wasn’t allowing that,” Rhoades said. “They weren’t bad memories, just a gut punch at the end on the 16th floor of the JW Marriott. We were in March Madness, we just didn’t get to play. I want them to remember that memory and knowing their name was called on Selection Sunday. I can’t allow anything but the moment I had to tell them we can’t play to be wiped from their memories.”

Before they left the hotel that dark Saturday night, the Rams emptied their rooms of every last item they could find that had March Madness on it, even the stuff that was really supposed to stay behind.

“I wasn’t mad at them,” Rhoades said.

Fittingly, an atypical Final Four group follows a most unusual March Madness

A most irregular season has given birth to a most unconventional Final Four, intriguing because of not only who will show up in Houston, but who won’t.

Latest bracket, schedule and scores for 2023 NCAA men's tournament

The March Madness bracket, plus the latest schedule, scores, livestreams and TV info for the 2023 NCAA DI men's basketball championship.

Here's how 6 people — somehow — predicted every Final Four team correctly

Only 0.00017 percent of brackets or about 1 in every 600,000 brackets predicted the Final Four correctly. Let's see how these six ended up with the right picks.
Presented by

Subscribe To Email Updates

Enter your information to receive emails about offers, promotions from and our partners