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John Blanchette: Mark Few trusted NCAA to ‘do the right thing’ and it did in limiting patrons at tournament games

UPDATED: Wed., March 11, 2020

LAS VEGAS – As the confetti flew at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas and the Gonzaga Bulldogs were scissoring the nets to celebrate another West Coast Conference championship, coach Mark Few cast an eye forward to the next challenge – the NCAA Tournament, and the Zags locking in a spot at the early-rounds pod in Spokane.

And, in particular, the suffocating attention on his team that playing a mile from its campus is bound to generate.

“We’ll have to block out a lot of the distractions,” he said, “that quite frankly go away when you hit the road.”

Fewer distractions now than once anticipated.

Early Wednesday afternoon, the NCAA turned its showcase spectacle into a made-for-TV event, with a wise – and inevitable – decision to close the doors to the tournament and other competitions to spectators other than “essential personnel and limited family,” in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus and in line with recommendations from health and government officials.

That means anyone else with tickets to the first- and second-round games at the Spokane Arena on March 19 and 21 – where the sure-to-be-No. 1-seeded Zags would be the main attraction – won’t be admitted. And now ticketing won’t even begin for the women’s games that are likely bound for Gonzaga’s McCarthey Athletic Center that same weekend.

The full statement from the NCAA:

“The NCAA COVID-19 Advisory Panel recognizes the fluidity of COVID-19 and its impact on hosting events in a public space. COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in the United States, and behavioral risk mitigation strategies are the best option for slowing the spread of this disease. This is especially important because mildly symptomatic individuals can transmit COVID-19. Given these considerations, coupled with a more unfavorable outcome of COVID-19 in older adults – especially those with underlying chronic medical conditions – we recommend against sporting events open to the public. We do believe sport events can take place with only essential personnel and limited family attendance, and this protects our players, employees, and fans.”

There you have it. One Silent Moment.

It could be just the beginning – or, rather, the end. On Wednesday evening, the NBA suspended its season and there’s every chance other pro leagues will follow, and the possibility the NCAA will re-evaluate its decision to go forward with games.

If they do play, it will be an eerie exercise, to be sure – high-stakes basketball in ghost arenas.

And whatever the final call, it’s unlikely that any fan base will feel as emotionally empty – OK, robbed – as Gonzaga’s local mob, which has been teased with seeing the Zags launch a tournament run here in town, only to see it go unrequited until now.

Five previous times since 2003 Spokane has hosted NCAA games, but never did Gonzaga earn a high enough seed – by guidelines, no lower than a No. 4 – to get the hometown placement.

Now that those stars have lined up, virtually no one will be allowed to see it in person, if at all. The likelihood of having the women’s event in town at the same time makes it even more of a disappointment for both Gonzaga’s players and their rabid supporters.

And it’s absolutely the right thing to do.

Please – park your wails about hysteria and overreaction. Let’s hail for a moment that, for a change, some people in charge are actually listening to scientists.

While Doc Trump is telling people that the virus is going to go away when the sun comes out, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told a House committee on Wednesday that, “We’ve got to assume it is going to get worse and worse and worse.”

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci also pointedly remarked that as a strategy forms to slow the spread of the infections, “We would recommend that there not be large crowds. If that means not having any people in the audience as the NBA plays, so be it.”

Or the NHL or Major League Baseball. Or, yes, the NCAA Tournament.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization finally declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic.

Now, there will be “yeah, but” inconsistencies in policy that will emerge daily and trigger exasperation, but they won’t be proof that walling off games from their huge crowds is the wrong thing to do. This isn’t being done to spoil anyone’s party, though of course it does. It’s the situation the world finds itself in – and it’s ridiculous to scoff at a distasteful reality because, well, yay sports.

That’s why it was encouraging to hear Few try to strike a balance in his remarks Tuesday night.

“We’re all just hoping and counting on the right decisions being made,” he said, “not only to protect everybody, but also fully understanding how much this tournament means to the players who have waited all their lives for this.”

Reading between the lines, that suggests the games go on, even if it means empty arenas. There’s no guarantee the NCAA’s call on Wednesday was the last word, and a single infected athlete could bring the tournament to a halt. The NCAA must be mindful of that.

“This is what we play for, this time of year,” Few said. “That’s what makes it a tough decision. Look, the NCAA has some great people that will do the right thing.”

At this point, it has. And it may have to do more.

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