The University of Virginia’s men’s basketball team, the 2019 national champion, pulled out of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament on Friday after someone inside the program tested positive for the coronavirus. Hours later, the University of Kansas, another perennial college basketball power, left the Big 12 Conference tournament for a similar reason.
The withdrawals, a day after Duke dropped out of the ACC tournament because of the virus, immediately put into doubt whether some of the sport’s most prominent teams will be able to play in the NCAA tournament, which is scheduled to begin next week.
Although some teams automatically qualify for the tournament by winning conference tournaments, a selection committee picks most of the 68-team field for the national competition each year. This year, outbreaks and quarantine periods and truncated schedules have only complicated the job of the committee, and the NCAA, both in the weeks leading to the tournament and — potentially — after it begins in Indiana, where it will be played in full.
Bill Self, the Kansas coach, said the Jayhawks had “caught a bad break at the wrong time” but suggested its season — at least in Kansas’ view — was not over when he said he looked “forward to preparing my team in probably a unique way for next week’s NCAA Tournament.” In a separate statement, Tony Bennett, Virginia’s coach, said that his university was “exhausting all options to participate” in the season-ending national championship tournament.
“We went from an exhilarating game-winning shot to beat Syracuse to a gut punch regarding the positive COVID-19 test within our program,” said Bennett, whose team is 18-6. “I’m hurting for our players, especially our seniors. I told our young men they have every reason to be disappointed, but it is still very important how they choose to respond.”
With the cancellation of Friday’s ACC semifinal matchup with Virginia, Georgia Tech automatically advanced to the conference championship game. The withdrawal of Kansas (20-8) from the Big 12 tournament moved Texas into Saturday’s conference title game.
Although Duke has long been a national power, and although its exit from the ACC tournament for virus reasons on Thursday unnerved the sport, Virginia’s troubles may have much larger national implications.
While the Blue Devils (13-11) were unlikely to reach this year’s national tournament, Virginia has been a defensive powerhouse and a scoring juggernaut. It was seeded first in its conference tournament, and could be among the highest seeds in the NCAA tournament field, which will be announced Sunday evening.
This is not Virginia’s first brush with the virus, either; the team struggled with fears of an outbreak in December, when it paused team activities for 10 days.
And if Kansas — or any other top team — proves unable to compete in the national tournament, another program with big ambitions — and, more important, negative test results — may get an unexpected invitation to take its place.
“Obviously we are disappointed and our players are disappointed that they can’t continue to compete for the Big 12 championship,” Self said. “While we have been fortunate to avoid throughout this season, there are daily risks with this virus that everybody participating is trying to avoid.”