'Bigger than basketball': Coronavirus concerns cut short Wolverines' season
Indianapolis — Seniors Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske were gearing up to make one final postseason push, one last hurrah.
After reaching the Big Ten tournament final and Sweet 16 each of the past three years, Michigan’s all-time winningest players were aiming to keep the streak alive.
Simpson and Teske never got the chance because their last run was over before it even began.
Shortly before eighth-seeded Michigan and No. 9 seed Rutgers were set to tip off at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Thursday, the Big Ten announced its decision to cancel the men’s tournament due to coronavirus concerns.
Later in the day, the NCAA announced it was canceling the remainder of its winter and spring championships due the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, which includes the NCAA Tournament.
And just like that, the college basketball season as well as Simpson’s and Teske’s careers were over.
“Some things are bigger than basketball,” coach Juwan Howard said in a statement. “This is a global situation and we need to make sure we follow the guidance and direction of the experts and health officials.
“While we are disappointed of not being able to play this event — especially for Zavier and Jon, we need to stay bonded together during this time. We want everyone to stay safe and take precautions to protect yourselves and loved ones. We are a Michigan family ... forever.”
As professional leagues took preventative measures to protect their players and the spread of the virus — with the NBA going as far as to suspend their season — the Big Ten announced on Wednesday night the tournament would go on as planned but would be closed to spectators.
It led a surreal scene as the Wolverines and Scarlet Knights warmed up in a virtually empty arena. Sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. and junior walk-on guard Luke Wilson both made light of the situation, with Johns pointing and waving at the stands and Wilson throwing up his arms to pump up an imaginary crowd.
But just minutes after Michigan and Rutgers took the court for their final pregame warm-ups, word came down the event was being cut short and both teams were sent back to their respective locker rooms.
"First of all, it was just weird going out there in the first place with no fans out there. It felt like an AAU game,” Teske said in a video published on the Michigan basketball Twitter account. “Once they called us in, we had an idea that maybe they canceled it. (Athletic director) Warde (Manuel) came in and talked to us and said they did.
“It's disappointing right now but it's for the safety of all of us. Safety is first. You can win and lose games, but you can't win or lose life. Life is very precious and that's what we're protecting right now.”
Manuel told MGoBlueTV “robust” discussions started on Wednesday with the health of student-athletes, coaches and fans in mind.
That led to the initial decision to limit attendance for the rest of the Big Ten tournament games to family, essential staff and media.
“But as the night progressed, we realized as different leagues we’re looking at this and saying, ‘We need to move in a different direction,’” Manuel said.
On Thursday morning, Big Ten athletic directors communicated with each other and with commissioner Kevin Warren, who recommended to Big Ten presidents that the tournament be canceled and that teams be sent back to campus.
Manuel added he supported Warren’s recommendation to scrap the rest of the tournament.
“They want to play. I mean, this is what student-athletes do,” Manuel said. “It's what I did when I played. We want to play the game. That's what they like to do but as I told them, this is bigger than the game. This is bigger than just what we at the Big Ten do. This is the biggest issue affecting this world and we have to take a pause.”
It's a crushing end of the road for Simpson and Teske, who saw their postseason dreams get dashed and careers come to a close on Thursday.
The duo finished with a program-record 108 victories, two Big Ten tournament titles and a national title game appearance. Simpson took to Instagram on Thursday to post several photos of past postseason memories along with two crying face emojis.
The Wolverines will end the season 19-12 and one victory shy of a fifth consecutive 20-win campaign. They also would've been making their fifth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
But, as junior forward Isaiah Livers told his teammates, basketball is small compared to what’s going on in the world right now.
“We've got people who are potentially losing lives, getting sick,” Livers said. “It's definitely something serious, but I'm glad it got addressed.”