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March Madness, other college sports canceled amid coronavirus concerns

The NCAA formally called off its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments Thursday afternoon. Tampa was set to host opening rounds next week.

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The coronavirus’ paralyzing effect on the college sports landscape continued Thursday, with the NCAA canceling its globally touted men’s and women’s basketball tournaments known as March Madness.

But far more stunning was its decision to call off all spring sports championships as well.

“Surprised that we’ve made a decision now in mid-March to not play a baseball or softball national championship event," SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told ESPN’s Paul Finebaum. “So I look forward to learning what informed that decision.”

Among those staggered by the announcement’s sprawling repercussions: bay area businesses, basketball fans and local organizers. Amalie Arena was set to host eight men’s teams in first- and second-round NCAA Tournament action starting next Thursday, capping three full years of preparation for the event.

Tampa was awarded a host site in April 2017.

“In these unprecedented times, we understand and respect the NCAA’s difficult decision surrounding this year’s men’s basketball tournament as well as each of their other championships,” the Tampa Bay Local Organizing Committee said in a statement.

“We truly appreciate our longstanding partnership with the NCAA and are eager to welcome March Madness back to Tampa Bay in the near future.”

An official NCAA statement read: This decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to the spread of the pandemic, and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during this academic year given ongoing decisions by other entities.

“I’ve said often that I think (March Madness) is the best sporting event of ’em all. … But let’s be real here: This is not about basketball, this is about lives,” Dick Vitale, wrapping up his 40th year as an ESPN college hoops analyst, said in a video he tweeted out Thursday evening.

“It’s not about trophies and championships; we have something bigger here that we’re dealing with. And the bottom line, we have to listen to our experts.”

Other events that won’t take place as a result of the decision: the College World Series for both baseball and softball, the NCAA gymnastics championships and the NCAA indoor and outdoor track and field championships.

But those cancellations were the last in a flurry of them announced throughout the morning and afternoon Thursday.

First, the American Athletic Conference announced it had canceled its men’s basketball tournament in Fort Worth, Texas ― where USF and UCF were set to play in the opener at 1 p.m. ― then later announced it was suspending all spring sports events until further notice.

Related: Tampa Bay fans waited two years for the NCAA Tournament, and ‘now it’s gone’

Shortly after noon, the ACC, Pac-12, SEC, Big 12 and Big Ten had called off their men’s tournaments as well. In New York, St. John’s and Creighton completed the first half of their Big East tournament contest at Madison Square Garden before the league announced around 1 p.m. its tournament also was being canceled.

Before the NCAA’s bombshell, the ACC announced it was suspending all athletic-related activities by its schools including “participation in NCAA championships” until further notice.

Florida State center Dominik Olejniczak carries the championship trophy from the playing court after the NCAA college basketball games at the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament were canceled due to the coronavirus in Greensboro, N.C. [ BEN MCKEOWN | AP ]

The American men’s tourney “was going to be a really terrific, intense tournament. But in the end, after everything that’s happened and the risks, it just was not worth doing it,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco told reporters Thursday afternoon in Fort Worth. "The health and safety of our student-athletes was absolutely paramount.”

Around 12:30, the SEC announced the suspension of regular-season competition and championship events for teams in all sports on all of its campuses until March 30. Less than an hour later, Conference USA announced all of its spring sports competitions would be suspended until further notice. The ACC, Mountain West and AAC followed suit Thursday afternoon.

Immediately following the AAC’s announcement, USF indicated in a school news release it is still assessing the virus’ effect on spring football practices and the spring game, scheduled for April 18 on campus.

The Bulls’ second spring practice, set for Thursday morning, was called off.

Before the conference and NCAA directives, many schools including USF, UCF and Miami already had announced Thursday that attendance at their home spring sporting events would be limited to essential staff and select family members and media.

At the AAC tournament site, Bulls coach Brian Gregory’s voice cracked when he spoke on the team’s official radio broadcast of informing seniors Antun Maricevic and Laquincy Rideau that they had played their last game.

“We went through everything this morning normal, it didn’t feel normal though,” Gregory said.

"As disappointing as it is not to be able to compete again, it’s the right decision for not only the health of our players, but to kind of control and contain the possible spread of this virus and so forth.”

Related: For now, we must cheer for safety rather than championships

In the ACC, regular-season champ FSU received the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tourney ― before the tourney itself was called off.

“There’s a lot of disappointment with us not being able to play, but in reality it’s small in proportion to the potential devastation or loss of life that could happen as a result of someone else enjoying the pleasures and entertainment of a basketball tournament," FSU coach Leonard Hamilton told ESPN’s Andrea Adelson.

"I think our guys understand that. We’ve had a good year, and we’re going to move on to the next chapter in our lives and try to make the best of it.”

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide

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PROTECT YOURSELF: Household cleaners can kill the virus on most surfaces, including your phone screen.

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