NASHVILLE, Tenn. — On the first night of the SEC basketball tournament, a night when the most noise is usually made by squeaking sneakers and four sets of cheerleaders, Bridgestone Arena was filled with fans from every corner of the conference in every corner of the lower bowl.
They knew these games between the conference’s bottom feeders were going to be the last they would have a chance to witness in person.
They heard the news all day as one conference after another decided to keep the fans away for their own good. The decision by the NCAA to play in front of mostly empty stands once the Big Dance starts made it impossible for even the strongest deniers to look the other way.
Eventually, the SEC became the final shoe to drop (minutes after the NBA postponed its season) announcing between games that the fan involvement for the rest of the tournament would be limited to family and essential personnel.
(For some reason, that includes us in the media. I guess those seats at press row are six feet apart.)
None of us really understand what is going on in the world except that we have never seen anything like it. As Georgia coach Tom Crean said and league commissioner Greg Sankey reiterated later, this is for the people with the knowledge who really understand what we’re dealing with here.
The rest of us are left to second guess.
Basketball has never seemed less significant.
“When I woke up this morning, I did not anticipate being with you here at this moment in this fashion with this news,” Sankey said.
Yeah, but I think a lot of us could see it coming.
This was supposed to be a column about Florida vs. Georgia playing a basketball game today, but the rub is that we don’t know for sure there will be a game.
There is going to be criticism that the league officials, who were meeting with athletic directors throughout the day, could have been leaders rather than followers.
There certainly could be criticism that even after announcing the fan access will be altered that another game was played with a pretty thick crowd of fans sitting side by side.
I don’t understand why they are going to try to play basketball Thursday.
Or Friday. Etc.
“I continue to believe it’s important that we give all 14 teams who arrived here in Nashville an opportunity to play for a conference tournament championship, our automatic bid,” Sankey said.
Sankey pointed to several factors for the decision to limit fan access, including the COVID-19 Advisory Panel, the same group that put the clamps on fan attendance for the NCAA Tournament.
He also pointed out that both Vanderbilt and Florida have turned to online classes and said he expects others to follow suit after their spring breaks.
And the game-changer, the World Health Organization issuing a declaration of a pandemic.
“You could tell our room changed as we saw that information,” said Sankey.
That information, all of the information, is likely going to get worse before it gets better.
But the league is relying on the local health organizations to determine the severity of the situation in Nashville.
Poor Nashville. This week was supposed to include fundraisers to help the victims of the tornadoes that ripped through here a little more than a week ago killing more than a dozen people.
“That’s obviously been altered,” Sankey said.
A lot of things have been altered.
This is how weird it was Wednesday. When Crean and two of his players came to the podium 15 minutes after beating Ole Miss, they didn’t know about the decision to keep the fans out for the rest of the tournament.
“We’ll adjust,” he said. “In this world, that’s the new normal.”
I don’t know.
There doesnn’t seem to be much normal about anything.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.