It became clear as Wednesday inched toward Thursday that postseason college basketball in the United States was at a precipice.
Multiple conferences, including the Big Ten, had announced plans to continue their tournaments without fans in the stands, a decision ultimately adopted as well for the NCAA Tournament.
When the NBA announced that it was suspending its season that evening, as the Big Ten was playing what would be its final game of the season, it seemed clear that conference tournaments and March Madness were in jeopardy as concerns about the coronavirus pandemic continued.
It was a point of view Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said he had already come to days earlier. As a member of the president’s cabinet at Ohio State, Smith had been briefed on the virus, what the ramifications were for continuing to hold public events and what could help minimize risks.
It was why he had been recommending to his colleagues that everything needed to be shut down.
"I was ready Monday," Smith said on a Friday teleconference. "If we continued behaviors and put people in the groupings we were putting them in, it would only continue to provide the virus an opportunity to spread. It’s just common sense to me that we needed to do something sooner rather than later."
From a personal standpoint, it wasn’t an easy realization to come to. Smith said he could picture the specific faces of athletes such as men’s basketball senior Andre Wesson and fifth-year men’s tennis player Kyle Seelig. He knew what it would mean to them to have their postseason opportunities denied.
So as he arrived in Indianapolis, site of the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament, on Wednesday afternoon for a league meeting, he continued to make his position known.
"I had decided individually that I felt we needed to cancel the Big Ten tournament and we needed to cancel the NCAA Tournament," Smith said. "Once we (decided to cancel the Big Ten tournament), we kind of shifted our focus to the NCAA. The NCAA was having strategy sessions along that path at the same time we were having discussions in the Big Ten, and every other conference across the country."
The decision wouldn’t be formalized until Thursday morning. Michigan and Rutgers players were at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and going through pregame warmups when they were pulled off the court to be told that the tournament was over.
Smith called Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann around 11:15 that morning to give him the news. The two had been in contact throughout the night, and Holtmann woke up Thursday knowing his team would almost certainly not be playing Purdue that evening.
"Gene and I have been talking late last night and into this morning, and we had both talked about the idea that this was likely," Holtmann said Thursday, after the Big Ten had canceled its tournament but before the NCAA followed suit. "I can’t say that I was too surprised."
Smith said the possibility of postponing a final decision rather than canceling the NCAA Tournament was a decision made by the NCAA’s Board of Governors and not something he was involved with. Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren took a leadership role and brought the league’s university presidents together, Smith said, allowing them to then communicate their decision across the country.
"When you listened to all the experts across this country talk about groups and gatherings and the transmission of how this disease occurs, we were encouraging interaction," Smith said. "If you look at what had happened in China and in other countries, we needed to put in measures to mitigate the growth of the virus."