One year later, Ohio State hoops returns to Indianapolis for Big Ten tournament

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Big Ten signage is shown outside The Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, in this March 12, 2020, file photo. Games will be played March 10-14 at Lucas Oil Stadium, which also will be the site of this year's Final Four.

It was on this day of this week one year ago that the last in-person press conference at Value City Arena took place.

First, CJ Walker and Kaleb Wesson met with reporters inside the postgame interview room to look ahead to their Big Ten tournament game against Purdue. It was the afternoon of March 11, the Wednesday before the Big Ten tournament, and at this point the United States was starting to deal with what was being described as a coronavirus outbreak, not a pandemic.

Ohio State basketball:Reporter relives day when sports stopped

So there was Walker, talking about the chance to play in front of dozens of friends and family in a return to his hometown of Indianapolis. And there was Wesson, talking about the desire to bring some hardware to his hometown school. One question told them to “face it, you’re in the NCAA Tournament” while another asked about being “built for this moment.”

Moments later, Walker and Wesson headed out, coach Chris Holtmann sat down and the conversation took a slightly ominous tone.

“I don’t know where this is headed,” Holtmann said when asked about the coronavirus. “I think we all know it’s a very fluid situation. I do think there will continue to be some things that will really impact the NCAA Tournament.”

The day before, Holtmann said, the staff spoke with the players about the importance of taking care of themselves, getting as much sleep as possible and washing hands. Players were being advised to maybe not shake hands with fans or sign autographs for now, Holtmann said,

It wasn’t until the 13th question of the press conference with the players that the word “coronavirus” was mentioned to Walker and Wesson, who were asked what it would’ve been like to have had limited family members in attendance when they won state championships in high school.

“It’s obviously a big thing,” Walker said. “Very concerning. Very eye-opening to see how fast it’s spreading, but it’s something we can’t control. We’ve got to be ready to play whether we’re playing in a gym full of people or a gym with nobody in it.”

Seated to Walker’s left, wearing a gray long-sleeved shirt underneath a gray practice jersey, Wesson chimed in.

“Control the controllables,” he said. “Whether you’re playing in a stadium full of people or not, you’ve got to come to play. We really don’t control who comes to the games anyway.”

“We practice in front of zero people every day,” Walker said. “It would most definitely be different, but we grind every single day with nobody watching so I don’t feel like that will make a difference to our team.”

At that point, Ohio State had moved classes online. That day, the Ivy League would cancel its postseason tournament. That night, the Buckeyes were in downtown Indianapolis as the whole world began to change.

When Kaleb Wesson (34) traveled to Indianapolis with his Ohio State teammates for the Big Ten tournament last year, he had no idea he had already played his last game as a Buckeye.

Doubt creeps in as things shut down

The Big Ten tournament would get underway Wednesday evening, but after Minnesota beat Northwestern in the opening game Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg became the center of attention in the nightcap at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Hunched over at times and looking positively ill, Hoiberg was eventually told to leave the bench to seek treatment and the game concluded with an 89-64 Indiana win in the last game of the season.

Afterward, the Cornhuskers were quarantined in their locker room, and by the end of the night the Big Ten had officially banned fans from attending the remainder of the tournament. Soon thereafter, the NBA was rocked when Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus. At the end of the night’s slate of games, the NBA officially suspended the remainder of the season.

The NCAA Tournament would soon follow suit as NCAA president Mark Emmert released a statement staying, in part that, “We do believe sport events can take place with only essential personnel and limited family attendance, and this protects the players, employees, and fans.”

At the team hotel, Holtmann began to realize that it was unlikely the Buckeyes would play their game against Purdue the next day as, bit by bit, the world began to shut down. The challenge upon waking was to remain positive and keep his players safe.

After all, this was the most important part of the season. Surely, they would find a way to play these games.

Departing for a future unknown

Thursday, March 12, began with an effort to have as normal a morning as possible. It began with a 10 a.m. team breakfast and an hour-long walk-through to further prepare for the Boilermakers, and during that the coaches gave the players every indication that they would be playing a game that evening.

“We woke up this morning prepared to play a game without the fans,” Walker said later that day. “We were ready to play.”

When that was complete, Holtmann, assistant coach Ryan Pedon and program assistant Andrew Dakich took a downtown stroll through a city their time together at Butler had made them well-acquainted with.

With the day still in limbo, Holtmann got a text from former Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer.

“A text comes in from Urban and it says, ‘A lot going on in the world right now. Focus!” Holtmann later told the Dan Dakich radio show. “I thought, that’s Urban right there. A ton of stuff going on in the world. It’s a good reminder of who that dude is, for sure.”

Not long after, though, Holtmann’s cell phone rang at about 11:15 a.m. It was Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, calling to tell him that the Big Ten tournament had been canceled, providing Holtmann with a strange mix of concern and possibly relief.

“I would’ve felt a little bit odd coaching a game that day with everything going on and not being certain how serious it was,” he said later.

The day’s slate of games had been scheduled to get underway with a noon tip between Rutgers and Michigan. Both teams were at the empty arena and going through pregame warmups when they were pulled off the court and informed that they wouldn’t be playing.

Holtmann’s first phone call upon receiving went to his lone scholarship senior: Andre Wesson.

Back at the team hotel, the Buckeyes assembled their group and delivered the news. The team grabbed a meal together in and around a ballroom at the downtown Marriott, and a hastily assembled press conference took place in a wide hallway on the second floor. Players, coaches and the general public comingled, occasionally exchanging elbow bumps rather than handshakes, a small sign of how life was already starting to change. Junior Kyle Young, who had missed the final four games of the season with a lower-leg injury, was moving around without a walking boot and had been penciled in to return to the lineup against Purdue.

At this point, the NCAA Tournament remained a go, although the writing was on the wall. As Holtmann spoke to reporters and TV cameras, Duke and Kansas announced they wouldn’t participate should the NCAA attempt to hold the tournament. Andre Wesson told reporters that he was mentally preparing for the worst: the immediate end to his final season.

“I didn’t expect all this to happen,” he said. “With March Madness coming up, I wouldn’t be too excited if it was to end, but I’m just keeping my hopes up and hopefully they still have March Madness for sure. Obviously I knew the disease was big and it would affect a lot of things, but for it to affect all this, it’s been real crazy.”

Ohio State gave its players the option of spending some time with their families, which Walker did, or taking the bus back to Columbus. The plan was for the Buckeyes to return to campus by Sunday, when they would converge on Holtmann’s house to watch the official Selection Show.

Maybe, Holtmann hoped, the tournament would be pushed back into May or June.

“I understand if it needs to be canceled, but I would love the idea of postponing it and giving our young men an opportunity and all the others,” he said that day, citing teams such as Robert Morris and Rutgers, who were poised to make returns to the tournament after lengthy absences. “You’d love to be able to see those teams play in what I think is the most suspenseful, greatest sporting event around.”

It was on the drive home that the decision was official: No NCAA Tournament. No postponement. Just gone. The season was over, the school year was over and players were sent home.

Today, the Buckeyes return to the city where it all stopped last year. The games will be played at Lucas Oil Stadium and in front of limited fans. If Ohio State wins its Thursday game, it will face Purdue on March 12 – the team it was scheduled to face exactly one year ago.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy