Opinion: VCU, You Deserved A Better Ending

I thought I had seen the worst way for a season to end.

Marcus Evans, down on the floor of the Barclays Center. The junior guard, the heart and soul of the 2019 regular season champion VCU Rams, on the ground, screaming in pain. VCU entered the A10 tournament on a roll, but were run off the floor by an 8-seed Rhode Island team.

A team that was never the same. A team that lost its first March Madness game after getting an unbelievably unlucky draw in its 8-9 game. A team without a true center, facing a UCF team with the tallest player to ever play Division I basketball.

I watched the game from a bar on Main Street in Richmond, downing an alcoholic milkshake to blunt the pain of a double-digit loss. I almost missed the game because I was broadcasting a baseball game for the campus radio station, but I flew home from The Diamond to watch this in a crowd – as all big moments demand.

“We’ll be back,” I thought. “We’re returning almost every key player.”

I thought I had seen the worst way for a season to end.


I thought I had seen the worst way for a season to end.

Finally, after spending my whole VCU student career at the student radio station, I would get to go to the Atlantic 10 tournament. Spring Break 2020 was going to be great! My first trip to New York, my first A10 tournament, and a great cap to a college career.

I boarded an Amtrak to New York on Tuesday, March 9, 2020. The world I returned to was vastly different from the one I left.

VCU came out for warmups for its Thursday game against UMass. Although rumbles of other conferences canceling their tournaments were drifting around the Barclays Center, I felt like the A10 had dodged that bullet. Certainly the conference wouldn’t pull the teams off the floor, right?

While the teams were warming up on the floor, the cleaning staff at the arena were working methodically, disinfecting every seat in the empty bowl as the warmup timer approached zero.

The buzzer went off. Nobody did anything. Then, Mike Rhoades waived to the select group of fans behind the VCU bench.

The A10 tournament had been canceled. COVID had arrived into our lives. VCU’s season, and the season of every other team in the conference, was over in a snap. No closure. No natural conclusion. Just, over.

The feelings in that arena were complex. People were scared, as the full weight of the pandemic began to press on the Barclays Center occupants. People were sad, as basketball season had been blown away right in front of us. (I still feel bad for Dayton fans. They deserved a better ending too). People were worried. What would the next few months look like?

The emotions of that day were devastating. Certainly, that would be the worst way for a season to end.


As we all know now, that was not the worst way for a season to end.

The worst way for a college basketball season to end happened to the VCU Rams on Saturday evening. Three hours before tip-off, the NCAA ruled VCU’s first round matchup against Oregon a “no contest” due to an ongoing COVID outbreak within the VCU program. Officially the record book will show Oregon beating VCU 1-0.

In one evening, the feelings of that Tuesday afternoon last March came roaring back. It is an incredible feeling of deja vu to see VCU’s season end due to COVID-19 two seasons in a row. Every team in this country worked hard all year to put on a basketball season, essentially locking down their lives to guard themselves from COVID. The Rams had been fortunate: they both were good enough to earn an at-large bid into March Madness and lucky enough to avoid positive virus tests for the entire season.

One poorly-timed outbreak later, and it is all over. It hurts so much worse than last season.

Last season, every team in the country was in the same boat. There was no postseason; there were no sports. Every team was marooned on the same island, surrounded by an ocean of COVID anxiety.

This year, 68 teams qualified for March Madness. Sixty-seven of them will play. VCU is literally alone; the only school in the tournament to experience a disqualifying COVID outbreak in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

VCU is alone – the only team in the history of March Madness to lose in a “no contest.” It’s a bizarre feeling.

As a VCU alum, my heart breaks for the fans, among the most passionate in the conference, who have been robbed of seeing one of the best players in recent VCU history make a March Madness run.

My heart breaks for Mike Rhoades and the coaching staff, who have been stringent enforcers of COVID protocols. Up until this week, VCU was among the best in the nation at keeping clear of the virus. To see that work undone in 48 hours is devastating.

But most of all, I feel horrible for the players. Only three players on this year’s VCU team have appeared in March Madness before. To literally be hours away from your life’s dream, just to have it yanked out from under you, is unimaginable. I am crushed for them.

I am crushed for A10 Player of the Year Bones Hyland. Hyland is a player that feels born for March Madness, an offensive supernova that can create an incredible highlight tape. Hyland’s 3-pointers would have lit up Twitter timelines from coast-to-coast.

I am crushed for Hason Ward. His blocking talents are among the best in the conference, again another Ram that can piece together an incredible highlight reel. For a player who did not pick up basketball until well into his teens, Ward has made incredible leaps. A national audience deserved to see his skills on display.

Ace Baldwin, who has become one of the best freshmen in the conference. Arnold Henderson, a walk-on who grew up cleaning the floors at the Siegel Center. Every player on this team, each bringing value to the best VCU team I have ever covered. The pain I and other fans feel must pale in comparison to the feelings they must feel. I am so, so sorry it had to end like this.

Where do VCU fans go from here? It is okay to feel sad, disappointed, hurt. No team in the country has had to deal with such heartbreak in back-to-back seasons like VCU has had to deal with.

It is also important to keep perspective. This is nobody’s fault. We are in a global pandemic, where leaving your home to do anything carries the risk of catching COVID-19. Despite rumors peddled online and on social media, we will likely never know for sure how VCU contracted the virus. This is nobody’s fault, just an unfortunate break.

VCU has lost two postseason runs to COVID. 541,935 Americans have lost their lives to COVID. Countless more are dealing with physical, economic or mental impacts as a result of COVID and its effects. At the end of the day, it is awful for VCU, but it is generally small in comparison to what others have dealt with in the last year.

Spare a thought for the players and others with the program who have tested positive. Spare a thought for Roger Ayers, an A10 official who tested positive for COVID, as he recovers from a serious bout with the virus. Consider those who have been deeply impacted by the virus in the last year.

And express gratitude to the players, coaches and administrators at VCU, who gave us 26 games against all odds and gave us a temporary distraction from the difficult times of the last year.

Every morning when I get to my desk at work, I open up the Washington Post on my computer. I mouse over to the COVID vaccine chart, which shows how many Americans have been vaccinated against COVID-19. As of March 21, over 80 million people have received one dose of the vaccine. Each dose, pushing the COVID pandemic closer and closer to the rear view mirror.

I think about packed arenas and maskless press boxes. Those days may be here before we know it.

May we never have a college basketball season as difficult as this one.

And may VCU never see a season end due to COVID again.


*Photo via VCU Athletics*