The ESPN ticker crawled across the TV screen in Kevin McGuff’s office on Thursday.
It flashed terrible news.
The NCAA had canceled the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, ending his team’s promising season.
McGuff, the women’s basketball coach at Ohio State, had expected the announcement because uncertainty had hung over the postseason for much of the week.
“I figured that's what would happen and that was the right thing to do,” McGuff said. “We're in an extraordinary time where we have to put the health of our players and the population in general first obviously. But there was a sense of disappointment.”
The feeling involved his players.
The Buckeyes expected to make the tournament after missing the 64-team field last March. They were projected by ESPN as a sixth seed. It was to be a first for the underclassmen who made up a majority of the roster, and prior to the cancellation, they had planned to gather Monday night to watch the national television unveiling of the bracket.
“I just felt like it was going to be a great experience for them,” McGuff said.
Instead, McGuff spent most of Friday calling his players as they processed the end of a season. They were scattered across the country while on the university’s spring break.
Their final game had come five days earlier in Indianapolis when they finished as the runner-up to Maryland in the Big Ten tournament, losing 82-65 in the final against the top-seeded Terrapins, winners of 17 in a row.
The trajectory of the Buckeyes’ season had changed when the calendar turned to February and they rose off the tournament bubble.
Talented, inexperienced players developed. They won 10 of their last 13 games, including a season-high six-game winning streak last month, to finish tied for fifth place in the regular-season standings.
Two of their top three scorers were freshmen, Kierstan Bell and Jacy Sheldon. Forward Dorka Juhasz, who averaged nearly a double-double and was an all-conference first-team selection, was a sophomore.
Nearly all the players will return next season, with a chance to make the tournament, offering some solace amid the season’s sudden ending.
The only planned departure is Savitha Jayaraman, a senior forward who appeared in only one game due to injury. She’s leaving for a job with Abercrombie & Fitch rather than pursuing an additional season of eligibility.
But because of a strong finish, McGuff felt disappointment for a team that will never know its March fate.
“It's hard to say what would have happened or where we could have went,” he said. “But I know we were playing our best basketball here late.”
When he spoke with the players, they understood the reasons for the season’s cancellation.
In-person classes at Ohio State had already been canceled last week in response to the virus pandemic, prompting a shift to an online-only curriculum.
Students are required to move out of residence halls. Athletic facilities are shut down.
But the players remain left to wonder what the future holds, when they might return to campus, and when they might take steps toward preparing for a return to the tournament in 2021.
McGuff could offer only so many answers.
“I think everybody's still trying to process globally with this pandemic,” he said. “That's the biggest thing. There's just so much unknown about this stuff. Things are changing and evolving so quickly that it’s a really interesting time.”