INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – College basketball fans in Indianapolis already knew it before the Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament even tipped off: After Wednesday night, the doors were closing across the sport.
The school that emerges victorious from the Big Ten’s 14-team field will draw the same empty arena at the 2020 NCAA Tournament as the last squad to sneak in on Selection Sunday. The electricity and sheer madness of the best month in basketball is officially taking a seat on the bench to a world health crisis – COVID-19.
Still, an enthusiastic crowd dominated by Indiana supporters filled Bankers Life Fieldhouse to about 70 % of its capacity Wednesday evening for an 8:30 p.m. tip-off against Nebraska.
The scene pregame? Fans soaking up what will soon be gone. For how long? No one knows.
The following is a timeline as the events unfolded Wednesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse:
4:39 P.M. EST
NCAA President Mark Emmert announces the upcoming NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments will be played in front of only “essential staff and limited family attendance” due to how COVID-19 is progressing in the United States.
6:35 P.M. EST
The Big Ten Conference bans crowds from its postseason tournament games beginning with Round 2 contests on Thursday. A pair of opening-round games Wednesday will play on as scheduled.
7:58 P.M. EST
Indiana takes the floor for pregame warmups and the crowd stays standing. These are the standard layup lines of a (14) Nebraska vs. (11) Indiana opening round matchup – and people won’t sit?
It was a perfect example of a spectacle of the unknown and just the beginning of the uncertainty that surrounded Wednesday night.
The game starts and the first half carries on as most have this season in the Big Ten: It doesn’t matter who is playing and it doesn’t matter where. It’s a street fight.
Halftime, though, is different as Bankers Life Fieldhouse makes its first public announcement of the news everyone already knows: No fans starting Thursday night.
And do you hear that? Yes, that is a chorus of boo birds.
Never question how much the Hoosier state loves hoops. Ever.
9:31 P.M. EST
Indiana is in the midst of a 31-5 run to put away Nebraska for good. The Hoosiers’ NCAA Tournament hopes are on track. A win over the (6) seed Penn State Thursday would certainly silence any question of making the “Big Dance.”
But in the second half Wednesday none of that really mattered. Off the court, fans are more focused on their phones as the NBA drops the sporting news of the night: The NBA season is suspended.
Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert is the first NBA player to test positive for COVID-19 and the Jazz visit to Oklahoma City has been postponed moments before tip-off.
In Indianapolis, some of the final moments of live basketball with a paying crowd are wrapping up, but not before a message from the White House.
9:40 P.M. EST
President Trump suspends all travel from Europe, except the United Kingdom, for the next 30 days. The policy goes into effect Friday at midnight.
Meanwhile, there is basketball in Indianapolis. Nebraska is fading fast and apparently so is its head coach. Fred Hoiberg, who reportedly fell ill earlier Wednesday, is looking ghostly on the bench and makes an exit for the locker room in the game’s final minutes.
As media arrives at the postgame interview area, an announcement arrives: Coach Hoiberg nor any Nebraska player will make comments following the Cornhuskers season-ending defeat.
Hoiberg was on his way to a local hospital and here comes Indiana head coach Archie Miller, the lone member of either team to address the media postgame.
Miller just wrapped up a surreal locker room message: Great 25-point win and by the way, the NBA isn’t playing its games anymore.
“It was like telling (them) a family member is sick or something happened to somebody,” Miller said. “Obviously, our guys are pretty in tune with what is going on with the virus but when you say, ‘Hey fellas, you are going to hear this but the NBA season has just been canceled.’ You see a bunch of young guys looking at you like — we have been telling you this is kind of serious…go wash your hands.”
“I think we are all sitting here, teetering right now, not only worrying what is going to happen with the Big Ten Tournament probably in the next 48 hours, but what happens after Sunday?” Miller added. “That is probably a little bit nerve-racking for a lot of people right now.”
11:15 P.M. EST
The postgame story becomes coach Hoiberg. His team is still in the NBA’s visiting locker room at Bankers Life Fieldhouse as reporters are denied any comment from the program or Big Ten officials. The extended postgame stay includes an in-house meal and eventually a ride back to the team hotel.
12:43 A.M. EST
After a frightening scare, the news is good on Hoiberg, it’s Influenza A. He was released from the hospital and headed back to the team hotel.
That leaves us in the early morning hours of Thursday, after arguably the most uncertain stretch of hours in basketball history. Are more canceled games ahead? Certainly. No 2020 NCAA Tournament? It’s not out of the question.
Regardless of what basketball’s powers decided – can we agree on this one truce this Thursday morning? Let’s look out for each other. This madness is much bigger than one March.