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‘The right thing to do’: Big Ten cancels men’s basketball tournament

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Indianapolis — The show won’t go on.

The Big Ten Conference abruptly canceled the remainder of its men’s basketball tournament, which was scheduled to continue Thursday, due to coronavirus concerns.

Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said the decision was “the right thing to do.”

“Today has been an interesting day, and I would say the last couple months have been very interesting from a health and wellness standpoint,” Warren said. “And as you make these decisions which are not easy, but you have to always ask yourself, what is the right thing to do?

“I’ve found that over my career, the more complicated decisions are, the more answers are much more simple and that is to always base your decision on what is the right thing to do. I feel strongly that we have a fiduciary responsibility to our student-athletes, first and foremost, and our coaches and our administrators and our fans to do what is right and what is fair, even if they really do want to continue playing.”

Fans enter The Bankers Life Fieldhouse for a game at the Big Ten Conference tournament in Indianapolis, Thursday, March 12, 2020.

Warren said he has been monitoring the coronavirus outbreak over the last six weeks and the Big Ten formed an infectious disease committee a week ago.

As he continued to rely on information and guidance from individuals in the conference, Warren said it “became crystal clear” to him what needed to be done. So on Thursday morning, he made the recommendation to Big Ten presidents to immediately call off the tournament.

“I think the biggest thing is the uncertainty. I'm a big believer in asking a lot of questions, gathering information and making decisions based upon the best information that I have,” Warren said. “This is one of those situations there were a lot of people who were telling me, 'I don't know.' I get concerned when I hear, 'I don't know,' a few many times. I don't want to have any regrets and I just want to make sure as a conference we do the right things because if something had gone awry here, I don't want to be in position in looking back and saying, 'Only if we would've canceled this tournament.'

“I know we all love college athletics. We love women's and men's basketball. This is a great time of the year. It's part of our fabric of our country. But again, these are not easy decisions, but I feel very good with the decision that we have made.”

No. 8 seed Michigan was slated to play No. 9 seed Rutgers at noon at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

But just as the Wolverines and Scarlet Knights both took the court for their final pregame warm-ups, the Big Ten made the call to cancel the tournament roughly 20 minutes before they were set to tip off. 

According to Warren, the reason Michigan and Rutgers were allowed to take the court is because he didn’t want to rush to a decision before getting an opportunity to talk to all of the league’s chancellors, presidents and athletic directors.

Once the decision was made, though, Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel and Rutgers athletic director Pat Hobbs were notified and they passed the information on to their respective head coaches and basketball teams.

“I had to make sure that I was comfortable, that I had spoken to the appropriate people,” Warren said. “I think one of the things that is important to me, not only as a human being but as a commissioner, is transparency and communication.

“It could’ve been two hours earlier this morning, but it wasn’t.”

On Wednesday night, the Big Ten announced the tournament would go on as planned but would be closed to spectators. Michigan State was scheduled to play the Ohio State-Purdue winner on Friday.

"I’m obviously disappointed to have our season come to such an abrupt end," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said in a statement. "It goes without saying, this is something that none of us have ever experienced. I feel most for our seniors, for guys like Cassius (Winston) and Kyle (Ahrens) and Conner (George), who wanted to have one last shot at March Madness. Telling them their career was over was extremely emotional. But these are unprecedented times and some things are bigger than basketball. The primary concern for all of us is the health and well-being of our students-athletes, staff and fans."

The tournament started Wednesday with No. 12 seed Minnesota defeating No. 13 seed Northwestern, 74-57, and No. 11 seed Indiana downing No. 14 seed Nebraska, 89-64.

There was a scare during one of the games as Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg looked visibly ill on the sidelines. He ended up leaving the bench before the contest ended and was transported to a nearby hospital. Hoiberg tested negative for coronavirus and was diagnosed with influenza A.

Following the game, the Nebraska team was quarantined in their locker room for a short period of time.

Warren said he doesn’t believe anyone from Nebraska tested positive for the virus and added he would’ve reached the same conclusion regardless of that situation.

“That was an element of it, but it was so much bigger than that,” Warren said. “I think the biggest thing for me was to make sure that we had time. Because I found during life that if you take a step back, very rarely do you regret it. And we need to make sure that we had the appropriate time to make the appropriate decision.”

Warren, at the time, said no decisions had been made regarding the Big Ten’s upcoming hockey, gymnastics and wrestling tournaments. Later in the day, the NCAA announced it was canceling all remaining winter and spring championships.

Warren added the men’s tournament is scrapped for good and won’t be suspended until a later date. No tournament champion will be crowned since the event couldn’t be completed.

The Ivy League was the first league to cancel its conference tournaments on Tuesday. The Big Ten was part of the latest wave to follow suit on Thursday, along with the Mid-American Conference, Southeastern Conference, Pac-12, American Athletic, Big East, Conference USA, Atlantic 10 and Western Athletic Conference.

“This is a fluid situation,” Warren said. “I can’t recall the last time we had a pandemic like we do here, so it’s really important that we’re thoughtful. And if it comes down that I overreacted, or we overreacted, I’m comfortable with that. But I think as I sit here today, in these kinds of situations, you can never overreact from a safety standpoint and I think we needed to go to the highest level to give us a chance to deal with this acute problem.”

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins

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