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Inside 'devastating' end to VCU's season as COVID-19 wipes team from NCAA men's tournament

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For more than 48 hours, the NCAA men's tournament returned to precisely what we fondly remembered — overtimes, upsets and the type of merry chaos that make the event one of the most exhilarating on the American sporting calendar.

After the NCAA canceled the tournament in 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, college basketball endured a 2020-21 season of fits and stops, sporadic flourishes and frequent shutdowns. So it was only obvious that COVID-19 would loom over the tournament, which was logistically overhauled to be held exclusively in Indianapolis to attempt to prevent disruption.

On Saturday evening, the NCAA announced the first canceled game of the 2021 tournament. No. 10 VCU will not play No. 7 Oregon, as the game was ruled a no contest and the Ducks advanced to the second round.

VCU athletic director Ed McLaughlin identified the team having multiple recent positive tests as the reason for the cancellation. The NCAA said in a statement that the decision to not play the game was made in consultation with the Marion County Public Health Department. While a team only needs five players to play in a game according to NCAA rules, the recent nature of new positive tests ultimately led to the decision.

“What we have come to understand with it is the multiple positives within that 48-hour window was what gave the health department folks cause for concern,” McLaughlin said on a Zoom call.

At least statistically, the moment appeared inevitable. Cancellations have become part of the American sporting backdrop the past year. But that didn’t make it any less jarring. VCU traveled to Indianapolis after the school’s Atlantic-10 title game in nearby Dayton, Ohio, on Sunday. They didn’t have any protocol violations, as they’d been essentially locked in their hotels, like the other teams, with scheduled breaks to practice.

VCU coach Mike Rhoades talks to his team during a timeout during a game between the Rams and the Dayton Flyers on March 14.  (Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
VCU coach Mike Rhoades talks to his team during a timeout during a game between the Rams and the Dayton Flyers on March 14. (Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

But for all of the NCAA’s planning and good intentions, COVID-19 remains a menace. And that meant a gutted team, coaching staff and fan base on Saturday night. A program built on March runs like the Final Four a decade ago never got to start.

“It was devastating,” VCU coach Mike Rhoades said. “It was heartbreaking. No dry eyes. This is what you dream of as a player and a college coach. To get it taken away like this … ”

VCU’s shot at a shining moment disappeared for the second straight year, as the team was pulled off the floor prior to an Atlantic 10 tournament game against UMass last March when the 2020 tournament got canceled. The game was canceled about three minutes before tip, but the Rams' heartbreak was collective as the sport and NCAA tournament soon shut down.

This time, McLaughlin said he got a call from NCAA vice president Dan Gavitt and tournament committee chair Mitch Barnhart around 6:20 p.m. ET. They informed him the game was off. McLaughlin called Rhoades immediately after and McLaughlin referenced his voice being overcome with emotion on the call.

Rhoades said he gathered his team soon after on the 16th floor of the JW Marriott in Indianapolis and told them the news. “A lot of times in life, it’s not fair,” he said. “This is one of those times. We’re going to deal with this together.”

With the multiple recent positive tests in the past 48 hours, Rhoades acknowledged the uncertainty that hung over them throughout the day. He said that despite multiple players testing positive, the team wanted to play. (VCU officials declined to give specific testing numbers.)

Rhoades said he went up and down the hallway on Saturday to fire up the team prior to the news.

“We’re like a wounded animal,” he recalled telling them. “You don’t want to go against a wounded animal.”

Instead, a few hours later, he gathered his players and delivered the news in a straight-forward manner: “It just stinks,” Rhoades said. “There’s no other way. I can’t sugarcoat it. I feel awful for our guys. We had a great year.”

McLaughlin said there are no clues as to how the players contracted the virus. They’d been tested daily for weeks and had no COVID-19 protocol breaks, as he stressed no players sneaked out of the hotel or got in any trouble.

When asked what teams in Indianapolis could learn from what happened to VCU, he said: “In looking at it, I just shake my head and think we did the right things all the way through. I wouldn’t do anything different than we did it.”

He added: “I look back, we did the right things. I don’t know if it’s bad luck. It’s just terrible more than anything else. I don’t think there’s anything we would change.”

Three times since that Final Four run a decade ago, VCU has won a game in the NCAA tournament. The 2021 tournament will just be remembered as a cruel tease of what could have been. VCU is making accommodations on how to get home to Richmond, with ground transportation being arranged for the players who’ve tested positively.

As VCU departs, Rhoades stressed the importance of keeping proper perspective. “As hard as this has been,” Rhoades said, “it’s still just a basketball game.”

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