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March Madness, Indeed: Trying to make sense of the ripple effects from the COVID-19 pandemic

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Sometimes, the “correct” decision is the hardest one to make.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Baylor vs Syracuse Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Never, in our wildest nightmares, did we think we would find ourselves here.

On what should be the opening week of the NCAA Tournament, there is no tournament. There is no basketball to be found, actually, as the NBA is also currently suspended. Several European basketball leagues have followed suit as well. In fact, there aren’t many sports currently taking place at all, outside of horse racing without fans in the stands. The NHL, MLB, XFL, MLS and many other leagues are all on an indefinite hiatus amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s clear that the NCAA (and the other sports leagues) absolutely made the right call. Some things are bigger than sports, and a global pandemic where hundreds of thousands of people are infected, and thousands have died, then, yes, this is something that is much more important than basketball. This wasn’t an easy call to make — sometimes, the “correct” decision is the hardest one to make. There are no winners in this scenario, but the health of everybody involved is the top priority, and there was no other choice.

Look, I’m not a health professional, but I certainly don’t have to be to understand how quickly this has spread and the impact it has had on everyday life. In addition to the medical issues this has created — where we may not even have enough hospital beds in the United States to care for all of the novel coronavirus patients — there are many ripple effects at play here. Economically, many people who work hourly wages may find their jobs being shut down or altered in some way. Many small businesses are going to struggle to survive this outbreak. Measures are being taken to help out with this, and the more fortunate individuals have made substantial donations to assure workers have an income in certain areas, but there will be people who lose their jobs completely. The host cities for the NCAA are going to lose out on the massive economic impact an event of this magnitude would usually bring in, and of course the NCAA is going to lose billions of dollars in revenue by canceling the event (and yes, I know, the NCAA will be fine, but small businesses that planned on leveraging the tournament may not be fine).

Or how about how the pandemic affects education? Schools (K-12) across the country have been shut down or are moving to online classes. In many cases, this could make parents have to decide between going to work to make money or losing out on paid hours to stay home with their kids. Universities and colleges have moved to to online classes only. After discovering its first virus case, Michigan State has postponed its spring commencement, so graduates who were looking forward to walking across the stage will have to wait for that opportunity. The University of Michigan and many other schools have done the same thing. Additionally, bars and restaurants are being ordered to close (not only here in Michigan, but in other stats as well), and there is absolute chaos at places like grocery stores and airports. We’ve never seen anything like this, where everything is just shut down. There are many layers to this whole thing.

But the scariest thing about it is that there are so many questions left unanswered. We are scared of this outbreak because it is spreading so rapidly and people are dying. It’s truly everywhere right now. We could be carriers of the coronavirus without showing symptoms for a couple of weeks, and we could be spreading it around to others without knowing. Some people may not get more than a cough, while it could be life-threatening for others. That’s why this whole situation is so frightening. We like things we can control. This is not something we can control, and we don’t know when, or if, we’ll get to the point where we can control it, or at least contain it.

So, I understand all of the decisions that were made. But that doesn’t mean I’m not frustrated. The single most entertaining event, that we as basketball fans look forward to every year, has been canceled. This is the first time in the tournament’s history — which started in 1939 — that it won’t be played and a champion won’t be crowned. Quite frankly, this sucks.

I feel for the seniors throughout the whole country. Especially Cassius Winston, whose storybook career at Michigan State had one last chapter left to write. I can’t see into the future, but I’m pretty sure it would have had a phenomenal ending. As cliché as this is going to sound, I could feel it — in my bones — that Winston was going to lead the Spartans to another deep run. A Tom Izzo-coached team led by a terrific senior point guard that just so happens to get hot in March, in a wide open field with no clear super team? Yeah, I’m taking that bet every time.

Winston went through so much this year with the tragic passing of his brother, Zachary, coupled with the unfair expectations placed on him on the court. But with Zachary in his heart, Winston led MSU to its best basketball stretch of the entire season over the past five games. And it was almost inevitable that he would have led MSU on another run during the tournament. For him to not even get that shot is absolutely heart-breaking. The silver lining is that he went out a winner and Big Ten champion.

And for Cassius, his story isn’t over. He’s not going to be an NBA lottery pick, and he may not even be a first-rounder, but NBA teams are going to be attracted to his leadership and the way he responded to adversity. They’ll pay attention his court vision and basketball IQ, and the way he seems to find impossible angles to make incredible passes. They’ll fall in love with his personality. Winston isn’t some incredible athlete who will take the NBA by storm as a rookie, but teams would be foolish to overlook him. And as not only the school’s, but also the Big Ten Conference’s, all-time leader in assists, his No. 5 jersey will absolutely be hanging in the rafters of the Breslin Center one day.

I feel bad for the other MSU seniors, Kyle Ahrens and Conner George, whose basketball careers are more than likely over. They didn’t get a chance to go out as a national champion (they did go out as three-time Big Ten champions) or play any extra games. Or guys like Joshua Langford or Xavier Tillman who now have decisions to make on their futures. For Tillman, he loses his opportunity to impress NBA draft scouts further with his postseason performance.

And I feel bad for Izzo. This will forever be the “what if?’ year for the MSU head coach. Place an asterisk by the 2019-2020 season. A preseason No. 1 team that failed to live up to the early expectations, but fought through all kinds of adversity — from the Winston family tragedy, to the Langford injury, to the inconsistent decision on Joey Hauser’s transfer status and everything in between — to win a share of yet another Big Ten championship when all hope seemed lost on that front about a month ago

Despite all of those hardships mentioned above, Izzo had his team ready at the perfect time, and he knew his team could compete with anybody that bracket would have matched them against. This may have been Izzo’s best coaching job to date, given everything that transpired. If last year’s Final Four team wasn’t it, then this year’s squad was Izzo’s best shot at his second national championship. Next year’s team will have plenty of talent as well, but is not a sure thing.

I feel bad for the other coaches and players who were preparing for the tournament as well, and have now had that taken away from them. I feel bad for schools like Rutgers, Dayton, San Diego State and the countless other programs that had their chance to shine at a national level for once.

Again, the most important thing is safety for all. There won’t be a college basketball tournament played this year, but this is March Madness, indeed.