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Coronavirus Puts Basketball into March Madness

COVID-19 causes NBA to suspend season

Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz who became the first NBA player who tested positive for coronavirus.

Photo by Paul Holcomb

Update:

The NCAA has canceled March Madness. Mark Emmert has wisely canceled 2020 basketball tournaments with the following statement:

"Today, NCAA President Mark Emmert and the Board of Governors canceled the Division I men's and women's 2020 basketball tournaments, as well as all remaining winter and spring NCAA championships. This decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to spread of the pandemic, and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during this academic year given ongoing decisions by other entities."

COVID-19 disease, better known as the coronavirus, has now affected three high profile athletes in the past two days.

Yesterday Daniele Rugani, who plays for the Italian soccer club Juventus, became the first confirmed case of coronavirus among professional athletes. Later that day, NBA player Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz became the second confirmed case. This morning Gobert's teammate Donovan Mitchell also tested positive for coronavirus. Sources from within the Jazz organization had stated that Gobert acted inappropriately in the locker room by handling others' personal property and invading people's personal space. Gobert had even joked about the coronavirus prior to testing positive.

NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver, was quick to act after learning of Gobert's positive test last night, making the decision to suspend all league play indefinitely following the conclusion of Wednesday night's schedule.

Prior to any players being diagnosed with the coronavirus, Silver and teams had considered other precautions amid the health scare, such as playing games to empty arenas. The Golden State Warriors had already announced that it would do so, but now, with the league suspended, we won't see what that would've looked or felt like as a viewer. The NCAA March Madness Tournament had previously decided to play in front of empty seats and still play games; however, all five of the major NCAA conferences (the Big Ten, SEC, PAC-12, Big 12, and ACC) have canceled their individual tournaments after the World Health Organization classified the coronavirus as a global pandemic.

Now, it would be surprising, if not inappropriate, for NCAA president, Mark Emmert, to move ahead with the March Madness tournament, as it would present a huge risk to the student athletes involved to contract the coronavirus. This will be a difficult decision for Emmert to make as the March Madness Tournament brings in revenue of around $1 billion and represents around 75% of the NCAA's annual revenue as a whole. Thus, without the tournament being played, there may be a trickle down effect to collegiate athletics as a whole as a result. The NCAA's revenue is a shared operating budget that funds all athletic programs across the country, and if the Men's Basketball tournament isn't able to earn close to what's projected, smaller programs are likely to take the hit, from water polo to bowling, before football and basketball funding gets cut.

Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks owner and Shark Tank star, was recorded at his team's game last night receiving the news about the decision to suspend the NBA season. His candid reaction likely mirrored most of our own, and the shock on players' faces as they learned the news mid-game was reiterated on social media by some of its biggest stars.




In reality, Silver and the NBA made the right decision to suspend play and avoid facilitating environments where the coronavirus can be spread. Major events such as Coachella and SXSW have been canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus, as any large congregation of people can cause the disease to spread rapidly. The fact that the disease is dangerous and potentially deadly to small children and the elderly means that anyone who becomes a carrier is a danger to others. While I am an avid sports fan, especially of basketball, and was looking forward to the start of the NBA playoffs and March Madness tournament, I'm encouraged that the NBA has taken the necessary steps to do its part in attempting to limit the spread of coronavirus and do their part as an influential global ambassador.

With the start of the Major League Baseball season, NFL training camps, and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics all right around the corner, the NBA has set a high standard to how sports leagues and organizations can be proactive in protecting their players, coaches, and fans. Adam Silver has done his due diligence, collecting the significant information, having contingency plans in place, and acting swiftly and definitively before making a difficult decision to protect people first, rather than worrying about lost revenue.

There's no doubt about it- it feels damn good to win. But the satisfaction of gloating to your friends can be made so much sweeter if you could make some money on it!

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Following weekend number two of nonstop basketball, the NCAA tournament has been narrowed down to four teams. No.11 seed Loyola-Chicago will be facing off against No. 3 seed Michigan next Saturday afternoon, with No. 1 seeds Villanova and Kansas set to play that night.

The road to this point has been wild and full of upsets, and these four teams are a pretty far cry from what experts were suggesting just a few weeks ago. With that in mind, we decided to take an in-depth look at each team, the road that got them here, and what it'll take for them to win next Saturday.

Villanova

Being a Villanova fan over the past few years has been nothing short of masochism. Yes, they won the tournament in 2016, but since 2014, they've been either a no.1 or no.2 seed, and have only made it out of the second round once. Jay Wright's team is always great during the regular season, but for some reason once the tournament starts, they have a habit of forgetting how to play basketball. This year however, they're my frontrunners. They're the only team in the tournament so far that's completely dominated every team they've played, winning every game by double digits.

People are quick to point out Villanova's relatively easy schedule – the best team they played was probably West Virginia –but that doesn't really matter if one considers the way Villanova's second-half offense keeps lighting up the competition. That said, even though the Wildcats are averaging an NCAA-high of 87 points, the key to taking down Kansas won't be shooting 75%. The strategy for beating Kansas, much as it was for beating Texas Tech, will be Villanova's shutdown defense. The Wildcats are the most complete team left in the tournament, and are heavy favorites to win the whole thing.

Kansas

Kansas is the inverse of Villanova. After demolishing Penn in the first round, every game Kansas won was a nail-biter. They squeaked by Seton Hall and Clemson, and then this past weekend managed to beat no.2 seed Duke in an overtime battle.

While it's easy to say that Villanova has looked better than Kansas, it's worth noting the effect winning close games has on any team. Kansas is a team of fighters, winning games they haven't been favored to win. Their stats may not line up to Villanova's, but Kansas is a team that knows how to get it done when it counts. They seem to have that intangible x-factor, that stuff that doesn't let them quit. Forget Vegas, when the teams are this good, the smart money is on the one who knows how to grind it out.

Michigan

After heating up late in the season, the Wolverines blew through the first four rounds and landed themselves a game against a college that hasn't been in the tournament since 1985, well before any of Michigan's players were even born. Vegas has Michigan at -5 but while they're heavy favorites going into the game, John Beilein isn't going to let his team get too excited.

Just last year, folks in Ann Arbor were calling for Beilein's resignation. He remained calm, and cooler heads within Michigan's athletic department prevailed. Now, Michigan is in the Final Four, and Beilein's calm, cool, and collected attitude perfectly compliments the style Michigan hopes to use against Loyola-Chicago.

Michigan has a huge size advantage and hopes to push the paint on offense and hold Loyola-Chicago to the perimeter on defense. The goal is to calmly and methodically take apart the extremely hot underdogs while simultaneously dictating the rate of play. In a way, this is the game Beilein was made to coach.

Loyola-Chicago

If I'm being completely honest, I don't know what to make of this team. I've never even heard of Loyola-Chicago University. Their path to the Final Four is nothing short of insane. They won their first three games on near-buzzer beaters, all three being games in which they were underdogs. Then, out of nowhere, they destroyed Kansas St. in the Elite Eight. They don't play like an underdog however. They shoot 50% from the field. They pass well. They get back on defense. Their coach has weird offensive schemes involving something called "the hockey assist" and frequently uses a smaller, nimbler five-guard lineup. Still, these guys are huge underdogs, and while they've beaten some good teams along the way, this is the part of the tournament that separates the good from the great. It's probably the end of the road for the Ramblers, but they've definitely been the most fun team to watch this year.

No matter what happens next weekend, the results are bound to be exciting. Basketball fans are virtually guaranteed a Cinderella story in the championship game, considering how much better Kansas and Villanova are than Michigan and Loyola-Chicago. I would predict that Kansas and Michigan will meet in the final, but every sports writer on the planet has been wrong about this year's tournament from the get go. There's really no telling what's going to happen. There aren't many NBA contracts waiting at the end of the tournament. For most of these players, this is it. This is their moment. When the adrenaline is pumping and there's no guaranteed future in basketball, the NCAA tournament becomes anyone's game. Whoever leaves it all out on the court is going to take home the glory. That's the beauty of March Madness.


Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. His editorial work can be found on PopDust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. Website: https://matthewdclibanoff.journoportfolio.com/ Twitter: @mattclibanoff


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THE OPTION | UMBC is the Best Sports Story of 2018

March Madness is living up to its name.

We were blessed this weekend with the first two rounds of the NCAA March Madness tournament. As usual, nothing went as planned and the upsets were plentiful. Michigan State, Barack Obama's pick to win the tournament, fell to Syracuse yesterday. Number one seed Xavier lost to Florida State. Clemson drubbed Auburn, winning by more than thirty. Honestly, the sweet sixteen looks like it was picked completely at random. I've never even heard of Loyola Chicago! Villanova and Kansas are perhaps the only two schools rolling along as planned and that said, Kansas almost lost to Seton Hall last night, a school with maybe the eighth best program in the Big East. Still, despite all of the storylines and upsets, there's one team that stands out among the rest, one cinderella story so ridiculous, that it's never happened before. I'm talking about UMBC.

When UMBC won the AEC (America East Conference) and secured its trip to the NCAA tournament, no one thought much of them. The AEC isn't known for its top-tier basketball talent. Hell, UMBC isn't even the University of Maryland's main campus; it's a satellite school. This is like Penn State Abington or UNC Greensboro making a tournament run. It makes no sense, but hey, this is what the no.16 seed is for, teams who have no shot but still want the thrill of playing in the big show. The only thing is, when UMBC took the court against the overall no.1 seed UVA, UMBC didn't get run into the ground like everyone, including Vegas, predicted.

Throughout the first half, the UMBC Chesapeake Bay Retrievers (yes seriously) sprinted to keep up with the no. 1 seed, managing to make it to the second half tied at 21. But as soon as the second half started UMBC went to work, immediately drumming up a double-digit lead that they wouldn't let go for the rest of the game, ultimately beating Virginia by 20 points and reversing the 20 point spread Vegas put against them. This is the first time in NCAA Tournament history that a no.16 seed has defeated a no.1 seed and the game wasn't even close. There wasn't a buzzer beater or some heroic final push by a scrappy underdog. UMBC made 50% of their three pointers and Jairus Lyles (who?) put up 28 points. The team also benefited from the relentless pace of their point K.J. Maura. At 5' 8", Maura looked a bit out of place, but his passion and his willingness to all-out sprint for 40 straight minutes, helped carry the Retrievers to victory.

As if this game wasn't crazy enough, it's also worth noting that Virginia has the no.1 ranked defense in the country. They've let up an average of 53.4 points per game. UMBC is ranked 212th in offensive efficiency and they managed to put 74 points up on the board. With all this said, there's definitely a separate narrative that could be written. It could be one of Virginia losing the ball in transitional play and missing a lot of perimeter shots. You could just as easily attribute UVA's struggles to their unwillingness to get the ball into the paint and their inability to control the tempo once they got into foul trouble. This article could have just as easily been a long list of statistics proving how Virginia really defeated themselves by playing sloppy basketball. But, as Bill Belichick once said, "stats are for losers." Who cares what Virginia did wrong? UMBC showed up and outplayed them. That's the beauty of this tournament - you can't coast on your laurels. The team that gets complacent always loses.

Last night, UMBC went up against Kansas State and lost a grueling defensive battle, 50-43. They're home now, but they didn't leave empty handed. They were welcomed back by the cheers of their classmates and fans and they walked the halls of their school with pride, knowing that they weren't just a filler team, there to complete a bracket. They proved they belonged at the tournament, and they proved it against one of the best teams in the country. More likely than not, none of these guys are going to the NBA. Most of their names will be forgotten over the next couple years. Hell, most people don't know their names now. But for UMBC, a school who seldom has a chance to play in the tournament, this may as well've been the championship. These players carved a place for themselves in sports history when no one believed they had any business doing so. This is the best sports story of 2018.


Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. His editorial work can be found in Pop Dust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. Website: https://matthewdclibanoff.journoportfolio.com/ Twitter: @mattclibanoff


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