How VCU dealt with its covid outbreak at the NCAA tournament

Rhoades has been the men’s basketball coach at VCU for four seasons, and the one that ended March 20 in Indianapolis was without question its most satisfying – and most disappointing. The Rams were voted ninth in the Atlantic 10 in the preseason poll and finished second. They reached the finals of the conference tournament before losing to St. Bonaventure. That night, the 19-7 Rams received a general award for the NCAA men’s tournament as starting number 10, six days later in the first round against Oregon.

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“The funny thing is, the guys were really down after we lost the final that afternoon,” said Rhoades. “When our name was on the board, there was no up and down and partying, just, ‘Okay, let’s go to Indianapolis. ‘When we got there, the boys were already excited. They realized that the goal we had at the beginning of the season had been achieved. “

With the A-10 title game being played in Dayton, Ohio, the Rams had only a short bus ride – 117 miles – to their headquarters at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis for the week. According to the strict protocols of the NCAA, they were quickly taken to the 16th floor. Except for hotel staff, only those associated with the VCU basketball team were allowed to walk on the floor.

Everyone in the tour group was tested shortly after arriving around 10 p.m. and then all sent to their rooms for quarantine. They were tested again on Monday morning. That night the tests came back: all were negative. The Rams were free to move around and practice.

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The players were retested Tuesday morning and went to practice at 1 p.m. Until then, they couldn’t wait to play.

“When we finished the first two test laps, we all breathed a sigh of relief,” said Rhoades. “We were like everyone else; We had starts and stops during the season. … Our boys understood very well that they had to be careful. The school had distance learning, so they pretty much walked from their homes to the practice facility at the Seal Center. Now we had made it to Indy and we were in isolation with no positive tests. We were knuckled white until those tests came back. But then we could start. “

The buoyant mood began to change on Wednesday when basketball store manager Jimmy Martelli and coach Dennis Williams received a text at 1:20 a.m. telling them it had tested positive. They went to the player’s room and tested him again. Then he was isolated and said he couldn’t play on Saturday.

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“On the one hand, it was just a man,” said Rhoades. “On the other hand, I remember [Martelli] Say to me, “Once you get a positive test, there’s a good chance there will be more.” And I remember our team doctor, Seth Cheatham, who said, “Covid doesn’t care; it just doesn’t matter. ‘That was terrifying. “

Still, the NCAA had said that as long as a team had enough players to get on the field, they could play. They were all retested on Thursday and all results were negative on Friday morning.

“When we got these results back on Friday morning,” said Rhoades, “and the contact tracing hadn’t blown everyone, I felt like a weight had been lifted from my chest.”

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On Friday, everyone was tested at 10:05 p.m. – exactly 24 hours before the game was due to start. At 5:14 a.m. – Rhoades remembers the time precisely – he received a call from Martelli: Another player tested positive. He was tested again. The result came back at 8:56 a.m.: positive again.

Now there were two rotation players out. Rhoades gathered his players and gave them an encouraging talk. “There is nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal. Right, bones? “he said, looking at the second star, Nah’Shon” Bones “Hyland.

“Wounded animal, Coach,” replied Hyland. “Nothing more dangerous. We are dangerous! “

Because of the positive test, they all had to be retested at 11:30 a.m. The results came back three hours later: two more positive ones – another player and an assistant coach. Both were tested again and were positive again.

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It was time to panic. If the VCU had to play, it would do so with eight fellows and a walk-on.

Shortly after 4 p.m., Athletic Director Ed McLaughlin received a call from Dan Gavitt, who oversees the men’s tournament, saying the NCAA was in contact with Marion County’s health authorities.

“We will get back to you with a decision as soon as we can,” said Gavitt.

McLaughlin and Rhoades knew this meant that the NCAA’s initial promise to let a team play if it had enough healthy players may now be meaningless. The game was six hours away.

An hour passed. Then another. At 6:00 am, the hotel staff brought the pre-game meals to the 16th floor.

Ten minutes later, McLaughlin called Gavitt again. “The first thing he said was, ‘Ed, I’ve got Mitch here with me.’ Kentucky Sporting Director Mitch Barnhart was the chairman of the basketball committee. “My heart just sank,” said McLaughlin. “I knew what was coming next.”

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Gavitt stated that the county health officials said the VCU couldn’t play. The positive tests so close to game time made it too risky. The game was declared a no-contest, and Oregon advanced in the second round to play (and beat) Iowa.

McLaughlin’s answer was short and sweet: “F —, you’re kidding.”

How soon, he asked, would the announcement be made?

“We thought 6:35,” said Gavitt.

McLaughlin checked his watch. It was almost 6:20 a.m. “You have to give me more time,” he said. “I have to let Mike know and let him tell his players. You shouldn’t find out by looking at their phones. “

Gavitt agreed to wait until 6:45 a.m. McLaughlin called Rhoades and told him. His reaction was identical – with the word: “F —, you have to be joking.”

It was now 6:30 am. Before Rhoades assembled his team, he asked Hyland to come into his room. “I knew Bones would take it harder than anyone,” he said. “I didn’t want him to lose it in front of his teammates. I sat him down and told him what had happened. He lost it. He kept saying: “Coach, that was my lifelong dream, and now you’re taking him away? Just like that?’

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“I gave him a towel and told him to wipe away his tears so we can meet the rest of the boys. We met in the hallway and I told them. The hardest thing I’ve ever done. “

At Rhoades’ request, the NCAA found a plane to fly the Rams home. They landed just before 2 a.m. The next day, the three players and a coach who had tested positive came home on a socially distant nine-hour bus ride, accompanied by Cheatham, the team doctor. Another player and assistant coach tested positive upon their return. All six had to isolate in a Richmond hotel for 10 days.

“I was completely gutted for five days,” said Rhoades. “I’m glad it didn’t happen to anyone, but I kept saying to myself, ‘A team, and is it us? Why?’ I went to the office one day and no one was there. The building was dark. I just got in my car and drove around for two hours.

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“It took a while, but I realized that the NCAA did the right thing. They didn’t have a choice. We didn’t do anything wrong, but we had a breakout. I told the guys later that life is sometimes unfair, but we had to look like this: we had a great season with an unfair ending, but all we lost was a basketball game. More than 500,000 [Americans] died in this pandemic. People have lost jobs, businesses, houses. That’s tragic. That’s disappointing, it’s a shame, but nothing more. “

Shortly after the team got home, Hyland announced to Rhoades that he would be handing on his last two years of eligibility. He’s likely a second round NBA draft pick. Even without Hyland, Rhoades believes his team has a chance to be very good next season.

At the moment he’s still recovering.

“I went downtown last week and decided to buy a jet ski,” he said with a laugh. “I always wanted one, never bought one. I never buy anything. I bought the jet ski. My kids love it. I thought I deserved something. “

They all deserve something. But as they’d learned the hard way, Cheatham was right: Covid doesn’t care. November cannot come soon enough for Rhoades and his players.