On March 7, the Salt Lake Community College men’s basketball team blew out Eastern Arizona to claim the NJCAA West District Championship and secure an automatic bid to the NJCAA National Tournament.
On March 9, the Bruins were awarded the No. 4 overall seed for the National Tournament, colloquially referred to as “Hutch” thanks to the fact Hutchinson, Kan., has served as the event’s host for the last 72 years.
With the 4-seed and a first-round bye at Hutch secured, Coronavirus had not yet fully engulfed the United States sports scene, so Salt Lake was moving forward with plans to travel to Hutchinson this week. Hutch was slated to begin on Monday, with Salt Lake’s bye moving it right to the round of 16 on Wednesday.
“Last Monday, you had nothing canceled, there were really no significant things even postponed at that point, so we watch the Selection Show and see where we end up,” Bruins coach Kyle Taylor told The Salt Lake Tribune via phone on Thursday morning. “We’re calling hotels, we’re making travel plans, we’re getting school for our kids in order, and then everything happened very quickly.”
The fact the Ivy League got out in front of everyone last Tuesday and cancelled its conference tournament will go down as a footnote. A day later, Rudy Gobert tested positive for Coronavirus, the NBA indefinitely postponed its season, and seemingly everyone followed suit within the next 18 hours.
Conference tournaments across the country were canceled on Thursday, as was the NCAA Tournament. The NJCAA Tournament was not canceled, but was at first postponed to April 20, with Salt Lake to open with its round-of-16 game on April 22.
“When Rudy Gobert got diagnosed, you could tell the landscape was going to change,” Taylor said. “Pro leagues are the ones everyone follows, as it should be, so when the NBA postponed, we knew we would be in trouble.
“By 1 p.m. Thursday, we knew it wasn’t good.”
The NJCAA’s decision to postpone instead of cancel came down last Thursday evening, as the NCAA Tournament cancellation dust was still in the air. The thinking of NJCAA officials at the time was, while the NCAA Tournament has 68 teams dispersed across eight or nine different First Four, first/second-round sites, the NJCAA’s 24-team National Tournament is contested over six days in one location. Furthermore, that one location, Hutchinson, is an obscure Midwest town with a population of roughly 40,000. They knew they couldn’t play this week, but opting for six weeks down the road would, in failed theory, allow for things to settle down and return to normal.
Taylor met with his team on Thursday to let them in on what was happening and what the plan was going forward. This week is spring break at Salt Lake CC, and Taylor planned to give his players off next week as well. They would reconvene after that two-week hiatus and begin preparations for Hutch.
On Sunday, the CDC recommended that no gatherings with 50 or more people take place for the next eight weeks. The NJCAA responded on Monday by canceling all remaining basketball championships and all spring sports entirely.
“I do feel like we were going to win one or two games there,” said Taylor, whose team was 29-4, on a 15-game winning streak, and ranked fifth nationally at the time of cancellation. “We had the first-round bye, we would have been playing for two or three days, but in fairness, it’s hard to win a tournament like that.
“Do I feel like we got cheated on hanging a banner? I don’t know that that was happening.”
An unintended consequence of Hutch’s cancellation is the fact that a substantial, high-profile recruiting opportunity has been eliminated. On Friday, the NCAA instituted a recruiting dead period through at least April 15, eliminating in-person recruiting. If that April 15 date holds and Division I schools can get back on the road recruiting, Hutch getting rescheduled for April 20 was widely viewed in the JUCO community as a good situation for student-athletes.
A complete cancellation, though, somewhat complicates things. Taylor is comfortable with the scholarship offers his sophomores have, but a strong showing at Hutch could have altered plans for the better. Additionally, if the NCAA does not end the dead period on April 15, officials visits would be delayed and, if things become more dire with COVID-19, kids could be in a position where they would have to commit without ever visiting a school.
“We are encouraging guys to wait, working under the assumption that the April 15 moratorium gets lifted,” Taylor said. “I’m a little nervous it could get extended and if that’s the case, we’ll reassess what to do. If April 15 holds, there is plenty of time to still make a wise decision.”
Of Taylor’s sought-after players, Arkansas transfer Justice Hill is receiving heavy interest from BYU and Utah State, while Washington State, Nevada, Fresno State and Wichita State are in the mix.
For the record, the University of Utah cannot presently recruit Salt Lake Community College players, a self-imposed byproduct of the Utes getting sanctioned for recruiting violations in August.
SLCC, Westminster women also miss tournaments
The Bruin women were in a similar position to the men. They were also bound for the NJSIAA National Tournament this week in Lubbock, Texas, with the No. 18 seed. Like the men, the women had not traveled yet when everything got canceled.
The women’s team from Division II Westminster College was not as fortunate.
As the No. 5 seed in the NCAA South Central Regional, also in Lubbock, the Griffins were slated to play No. 4 seed and Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference rival Colorado Mesa last Friday night.
Westminster left Salt Lake City around noon last Wednesday, connected in Dallas, and landed at Lubbock Airport around 8 p.m.
“We get there Wednesday night, and things had changed by then of course, but we thought they would continue,” Westminster head coach Shelley Jarrard told The Tribune.
Jarrard and her staff let their team sleep in, with a 4 p.m. practice scheduled at South Central Regional host Lubbock Christian University’s Rip Griffin Center.
At 1 p.m., knowing her team’s focus was shot as conference tournaments around the country were getting canceled, Jarrard canceled that 1 p.m. practice. Not long after, the NCAA and NJCAA canceled all remaining basketball championships.
The NCAA told the Griffins they couldn’t get them home on Thursday. Jarrard called a team meeting and gauged whether or not anyone wanted to go home that night. If so, they would figure out a way to get it done. Nobody bit, so everyone traveled home to Salt Lake City together on Friday morning.
“I think this will all sink in later once we get back to some normalcy, but right now, we can’t have an end-of-season dinner,” Jarrard lamented on the heels of a 24-7 season and second straight NCAA Tournament berth. “We can’t get together, can’t tell each other what a great job we did, can’t feel some connection to your team.
“Those are things we can do later, but right now is a good reminder that it’s just a game, almost a luxury. I think we’re all grateful for the time we had together.”