What we know about VCU's COVID outbreak, NCAA's decision to cancel March Madness game

Henry Bushnell
·5-min read

For a second consecutive year, COVID-19 has impacted the NCAA men's basketball tournament. No, it won't cancel the 2021 version. But it knocked out VCU on Saturday night, hours before a first-round game against Oregon.

The NCAA ruled the game a no contest. Oregon advanced via forfeit. VCU is out.

The official decision, though, left a variety of questions unanswered. Here's what we know about VCU's situation, about the decision, and what it means for the rest of the tournament.

Why did VCU have to forfeit?

VCU had multiple positive COVID-19 tests over the past 48 hours. That, in short, is the reason.

According to athletic director Ed McLaughlin and head coach Mike Rhoades, the team still had more than five COVID-negative players – meaning, per NCAA rules, it had enough to play. "We had plenty to start the game," McLaughlin told reporters via videoconference Saturday night.

But the latest positives were confirmed as recently as Saturday morning. Coaches and players spent parts of Saturday answer questions, "and re-questions," Rhoades said, as part of the contact tracing process. VCU hoped that process would clear it to play.

But local health officials in Marion County, Indiana – where the tournament is being held – decided that proceeding with the game presented too much risk.

"Given how we had a few happen within the short period of time, there was certainly concern, not only for the rest of our team, but for the opponents," McLaughlin said.

His understanding, he added, was that "the multiple positives within that 48-hour window was what gave the health department folks cause for concern."

Virginia Commonwealth coach Mike Rhoades talks to Josh Banks during a game on March 14. (Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)
Virginia Commonwealth coach Mike Rhoades talks to Josh Banks during a game on March 14. (Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)

How does this affect the rest of the tournament?

The hope, presumably, is that the decision to withdraw VCU will prevent the virus from spreading further. By removing VCU, the NCAA and health authorities walled off the rest of the tournament from this team-specific outbreak.

Beyond that, there are very few takeaways to extrapolate. With COVID-19, no two situations are the same.

Did VCU have any say in the decision?

No. This decision was made for them. The players, Rhoades said, "wanted to play."

But he understands the decision. "I'm not gonna question medical people," Rhoades said. "That's their expertise. ... No matter what time of the year, when you have multiple positives in a short period of time like we did, there's gonna be issues."

What was the timeline of VCU's COVID-19 outbreak?

VCU arrived in Indianapolis on Sunday night. It held a shootaround on Monday, and went about its business just as dozens of other teams did to start the week.

According to a report from CBS Sports' Matt Norlander, VCU's first positive test surfaced on Wednesday evening. VCU officials kept the exact timeline vague, but McLaughlin only spoke about positives being confirmed over the 24 hours before the game. Rhoades said that VCU had practiced on Thursday and Friday.

"This has all happened pretty quickly," McLaughlin said.

What we know is that at least two players tested positive over those 24 hours, beginning Friday.

What was the source of VCU's outbreak?

We don't know how this happened, or where it started. VCU officials refused to speculate.

And because the virus' incubation period is often 3-7 days, we also don't quite know when it started. A player or multiple players could have contracted the virus before arriving in the NCAA's Indianapolis bubble. In fact, based on the timeline, that seems likely.

What we do know is that nobody suspects VCU of protocol violations or risky behavior. "We did the right things all the way through," McLaughlin said. "I wouldn't do anything differently than we did it."

When was the decision made?

VCU spent most of Saturday on the 16th floor of the Indianapolis JW Marriott "in a holding pattern," Rhoades said. "We thought we still were gonna have enough to play."

As of around 5 p.m. ET, five hours before scheduled tipoff, players did not know whether the game would happen. They ate their pregame meals as if it would. They knew they'd be without a couple teammates who'd tested positive. But Rhoades paced up and down the 16th-floor hallway, saying, "We’re like a wounded animal. We’re like a wounded animal. You don’t wanna go against a wounded animal."

"It's gonna happen," he told himself and the team.

Then he sat in his hotel room, watching other first-round games on TV, and glancing at the clock, and thinking, "Man, come on, come on. ... They didn't give us the green light yet, what's the deal?"

At around 6:20 or 6:30 p.m., McLaughlin got word from Dan Gavitt, the NCAA's VP of men's basketball, and Mitch Barnhart, the chair of the men's basketball selection committee. They told him the game was off.

How did VCU players find out?

McLaughlin called Rhoades to inform the head coach. Rhoades gathered his assistants at the end of the hallway. He then convened the entire team in the middle of the hallway, and delivered the news.

"It was devastating," Rhoades told reporters. "It was heartbreaking. No dry eyes."

But Rhoades also provided some perspective.

"We're talking about two basketball games," he said, referencing this year's forfeit and last year's cancellation. "There's been over 500,000 deaths in this country because of this virus. And as devastated as we are over a basketball game, there's a lot of people that have it worse than us."

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