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NCAA Tournament will play to empty seats

The show will go on. Even as the coronavirus spreads throughout the United States.

The NCAA announced Wednesday that its men’s and women’s basketball tournament will be played as scheduled. However, spectators will not be allowed at any of the sites. Only immediate families and essential staff from the participating teams will be admitted.

The policy will also be in effect for the NCAA’s men’s and women’s ice hockey championships, including the Frozen Four next month.

Whoever gets to the Final Four next month in Atlanta will likely be playing in a smaller venue as the NCAA looks to move out of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The NCAA is also looking to downsize its regional sites.    

“The NCAA continues to assess the impact of COVID-19 in consultation with public health officials and our COVID-19 advisory panel,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement. “Based on their advice and my discussions with the NCAA board of governors, I have made the decision to conduct our upcoming championship events, including the Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, with only essential staff and limited family attendance.  

“While I understand how disappointing this is for all fans of our sports, my decision is based on the current understanding of how COVID-19 is progressing in the United States.”

The decision was based on a recommendation from the NCAA’s COVID-19 advisory panel, which has been tracking the coronavirus and has been in constant contact with federal, state and local health officials.

It also came as governments in Ohio and Washington state issued restrictions on public gatherings. The First Four is scheduled for Dayton, Ohio and the first- and second-round games are scheduled for Cleveland and Spokane, Wash.

“The NCAA COVID-19 Advisory Panel recognizes the fluidity of COVID-19 and its impact on hosting events in a public space,” the NCAA said in a statement. “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 the players, employees, and fans.”

“No, it will be definitely different,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said Wednesday. “And obviously it’s not going to be just different for us, anybody that’s ever watched the tournament or participated, it would be different.

“But obviously there’s some brilliant people in our world. If that’s the decision, I’m sure it’s very well thought out and it’s in the best interests of these guys.

And at the end of the day, that’s what counts the most, to protect our players and student-athletes to the best of our ability. And I’m sure that decision was one that was hard to make, but we’ll show up. And if we’re part of that tournament, I don’t think it will affect our effort. Clearly it will be different for everybody that’s a part of it.”

Gonzaga coach Mark Few said Tuesday it would be strange to play in front of empty seats. But he said his team will prepare accordingly.

“Sure, of course it would be strange,” Few said, prior to the NCAA’s edict Wednesday. “But whatever it is, I hope those in charge of making these decisions will consider everything and come to the proper conclusion.”

Some conferences were already following the NCAA’s lead and banning spectators from their postseason tournaments. The Big Ten and Big 12 both announced no fans would be admitted as well as bands and cheerleaders. The Pac-12, which is playing its tournament in Las Vegas at T-Mobile Arena, also decided against admitting spectators for the final three days. 

“While we understand the disruption this will cause to our many fans, we have made this decision in an effort to do our part in helping to limit the spread of the virus and in the interest of the health and safety of our student-athletes, campus communities, working and volunteer event personnel and all those who attend Pac-12 events,” the conference said in a statement issued prior to the tipoff of its evening session. “We will continue to analyze and implement updated recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state and local health authorities, and take any additional steps necessary to protect the health of participants and attendees.”

The Western Athletic Conference, which tips off its men’s tournament Thursday in Las Vegas at the Orleans Arena, has not made a decision as to whether to admit the public. Fans were allowed in for Wednesday’s opening round of the WAC women’s tourney.

Earlier, the Ivy League announced it was suspending all athletic competition for the remainder of the winter and spring. That came on the heels of the cancellation of the men’s basketball tournament this weekend in Cambridge, Mass.

The ban on spectators has spread to the NBA and the NHL. The Golden State Warriors announced they will not permit fans into Chase Center in San Francisco for Thursday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets. 

And in a bizarre situation in Oklahoma City, the Utah Jazz’s game with the Thunder was cancelled just prior to tipoff after Utah’s Rudy Gobert reportedly had contracted the coronavirus.

The NBA has decided to suspend the season until further notice.

Down the peninsula in San Jose, the NHL’s Sharks announced it will prohibit fans from watching the team’s three remaining home games in March at the SAP Center,

The Columbus Blue Jackets also will play in front of an empty house at Nationwide Arena when the Jackets face the Pittsburgh Penguins Thursday.