Ducks denied their championship chance

COVID-19 has turned March Madness into #MarchSadness. It’s an especially deflating loss in Eugene this year as both University of Oregon basketball teams were poised to make a run at their respective championships.

Before you throw down the paper in disgust or scroll to the bottom ready to fire off a nasty comment accusing us of obsessing over sports during a crisis, we understand that perspective is required. Cancelling the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments is not the most serious thing about the coronavirus – also called COVID 19. People are sick. Some are dying. The global economy is tanking. And no one knows how much worse it will get.

But step back from those catastrophic elements of the pandemic. Dial it back a level or two. The end of sports for the time being does matter. It affects our culture and our psyche both nationally and here in Eugene.

Canceling the tournaments was the right call. Slowing the spread of coronavirus had to be the priority. Once health officials found that it had spread among athletes – two Utah Jazz players were the first – there wasn’t much choice. Fans would have condemned the NCAA if a player had contracted the virus.

Being right makes it no less dispiriting. If nothing else, Americans could have used distraction right now. As people practice social distancing and spend more time holed up at home, watching the tournaments could have filled some time even if they had been played in otherwise empty arenas. Cheering for favorite teams to advance through the bracket might never have been so enjoyable.

It could have been even more enjoyable for anyone with a passing interest in University of Oregon athletics, which is pretty much everyone in Eugene these days. The Ducks women’s team was ranked second in the nation when the tournament was called off, and the men’s 13th. Both teams were contenders, a rare synergy across women’s and men’s basketball. The players had worked hard for this moment, and now it’s gone.

The cancelation must sting especially for the women’s team. This was supposed to be the year they made a big national splash. Their dominant performance in the PAC-12 tournament augured great things ahead. Coronavirus pulled the rug out from under them at the last minute.

Two players in particular lost a chance to cap their amazing collegiate careers with a championship. Seniors Sabrina Ionescu on the women’s team and Payton Pritchard on the men’s could be the best players in the country. Certainly they are among a handful of elites with bright professional careers ahead of them if they choose. The tournaments would have allowed them to shine in a national spotlight and put on one final display for the scouts. It’s hard to imagine just how disappointing this must be for competitors of their caliber.

Ionescu had returned for a final season to bring a championship home to UO and gave fans one amazing performance after another. She was writing a magical story that now lacks its final chapter.

The loss is bigger than the teams and fans, too. A winning school normally gets a recruitment boost – both athletic and academic. Conferences that do well receive millions of dollars from the NCAA. Eugene businesses would have enjoyed a boost from fans attending the first two women’s games, and the regional semifinals were planned for Portland. Nationally, television contracts, coaches’ contracts and advertising dollars all are up in the air.

Basketball might be the most prominent college athletics loss to coronavirus, but it’s not the only one. The NCAA canceled all spring and winter championships. That’s two dozen sports canceled including indoor track and field, golf, fencing, hockey and softball.

Oregon teams were poised to do well in some of those. Ducks softball and both men’s and women’s indoor track and field squads are all ranked in the top 10 nationally. The women’s golf team is ranked in the top 20 after a strong showing at a tournament in Arizona and includes Sofie Kibsgaard Nielsen, a top-25 golfer. She, at least, is a first-year student and will get another chance

Ionescu, Pritchard and every other collegiate athlete who worked hard all season deserved better than this. They are all champions in our book.