Noie: What could have been for a college basketball season wiped out

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Yeah, this stinks.

Live and breathe college basketball from the inside out, where the arena is the office and the game is the job and these are the best four weeks of the work year. Always.

It’s said that there are more important aspects to life than sports, and that sports is the toy department of any newspaper. Yet in the last four days, and for who knows how much longer, we’ve learned that sports is pretty darn important in life. And we need our toys.

Especially this month.

This is when basketball should be on TV morning, noon and night. TBS and TNT. CBS and truTV. The first games tip just after noon; the last ones end long after midnight. Upsets lurk around every corner. Cinderella stories develop daily. It’s about No. 1 seeds and busted brackets and an overall feeling that’s difficult to describe unless you live it from fall to winter to spring.

It’s a job, but a great one. Even in the grind.

One Shining Moment? Actually, too many to count.

This month should again be a ride like none other, but one nobody will take. Everything’s all gone, wiped out by the ongoing concerns of coronavirus. As recently as Wednesday evening, hope was held out that there might be some way to play league tournament games and then somehow still have the green light for Selection Sunday. Then we’d get first- and second-round games in Albany and Cleveland and Sacramento and other places. That there might be some way to hold the West Regional at Staples Center, the Midwest Regional at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Final Four at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

We were wrong, because then Rudy Gobert happened.

When the Utah Jazz center’s test came back positive for coronavirus, it lit the fuse for an unbelievably stunning and swift end to sports. All sports. Nobody’s ever seen this. No games. No wins. Only a lot of losses. When the NBA immediately pulled the plug on its season, everything else would fall as well. No longer was it a matter of if but when college basketball would cease.

That hammer dropped Thursday afternoon when the NCAA announced there would be no men’s tournament. No women’s tournament. No March Madness. Nothing. Everything over. Like that. Done.

And that stinks.

Stinks because these four weeks promised to be like no other for the University of Dayton. The Flyers had a storybook season with a once-in-a-generation collection of talent and teamwork and toughness. They played 31 games; they won 29. They were the only Division I team not to lose once in regulation. Both were in overtime. They perfected the Atlantic 10 (18-0). They ran off 20 consecutive wins, something the school hadn’t seen since 1951-52.

They were ranked third in the country and on an express train to a No. 1 seed. Final Four? National champion? It was that type of team, that type of ride.

In the process, that team and this ride tightened a core of 1990 Dayton graduates like nothing has.

It’s been 30 years since we left behind all those moments that made it the best four carefree years of our lives. We scattered in different directions to do our own things, to chase our dreams, to start our families, to live life beyond weekends, and sometimes weekdays, huddled around a keg or two or five.

Each passing year pushed us a little further from those days and away from one another. But we’d get back to campus every five years for reunions and pick up where we left off.

Then this season happened.

Sometime in January, the text message chain started. There were a few of us on it. Then a few more. Then more. It grew to about 19 from all corners of the country.

There was Bean (a college nickname with a story behind it for another time) in Chicago and Cary in New York City. Eddie O in Boston and H in Kentucky. Mase in Cleveland and Anthony in Florida. Bobby and Mark and Foote (his real last name) in Philly. Matty in Cincinnati; Theo in St. Louis. TG in Toledo.

All UD guys to the core sharing this storybook season.

There were times when Dayton’s games overlapped with the day job — covering the Notre Dame men’s basketball season — and the text message alerts would have to be muted. Checking them after filing another column or quick gamer, there’d be a dozen messages waiting. Often more. All about the Flyers and coach Anthony Grant, a fellow UD grad, or Obi Toppin, on the way to national player of the year and NBA lottery status.

If it was a dream, nobody wanted to wake from it. Just ride with it, wherever it might take Dayton. Might take us.

Everything was falling into place. Dayton would get the first two NCAA rounds in Cleveland. Then maybe in Indianapolis. Then, ultimately, Atlanta. The first two cities were easy drives from South Bend. The third, a direct flight. Plans were made to follow the Flyers no matter what your job might require. Take time off or call in sick. Just get on board.

For the Flyers; for one another.

Even when the NCAA initially ruled that it would move forward with the tournament but without fans, Matty hatched an alternate plan. It had to be Matty, because, well, Matty always has a plan. The latest was that if the NCAA prohibited fans from attending games, we’d gather to watch the Flyers.

In Key West, Fla.

Maybe it would’ve worked. Maybe it wouldn’t. Just the thought of it was as intoxicating as those weekends back at school.

Now a season of what might have been is no more. No more games. No more wins. No more texts. All of it wiped out by the threat of coronavirus and the fear of the unknown. We’ve gone back to our lives, whatever that might mean in the coming weeks and maybe months.

It won’t mean bonding over college basketball.

We’ll still have those memories of our four years together at Dayton. In Stuart Hall. In Kettering. Weekends, and sometimes weekdays, on Kiefaber and Lowes. Late nights and early mornings at Tim’s and Flanagan’s. Those hours together inside 232 College Park back when we were kids. Those memories were ours before all this stuff started. They’re still ours.

But we should’ve had March.

That’s why this stinks.

A view of the March Madness logo inside the University of Dayton Arena. The coronavirus outbreak has abruptly roused Dayton from its dream of a basketball season. The NCAA decision to cancel March Madness ended hopes for the small Roman Catholic school’s first Final Four appearance in 53 years.
Power forward Obi Toppin and the University of Dayton were poised to make even more of a national name for themselves during the NCAA tournament. Now, nothing after March Madness was canceled because of coronavirus.