COVID-19 infects NCAA playoffs

Coach Greg Clink watches his team play from the sidelines.
Photo courtesy of Ryan McCasland/Chico State Athletics.

The cancellation of various athletic programs across not only the country, but the globe due to COVID-19 has devastated many. Chico State athletes have felt this hard loss first hand.

The men’s basketball team was destined for playoffs as a feared part of the Elite Eight. Their season and playoff run was cut short due to these unusual and unforeseen circumstances. 

On the way down to San Diego to leave everything they’ve learned this past season out on the court in the NCAA Division II Tournament, the Wildcats felt some hesitation and weight on their heart. The team had a feeling this might all be for nothing.

They arrived at a hotel in San Diego on the evening of March 11. By 11 a.m. the next morning, the players woke up to the heart sinking news of the entire tournament cancellation. They were scheduled to face No. 5 Seattle Pacific in the first round of the NCAA tournament the following day. 

“We were all watching the news… all of the major pro sports leagues were canceling their seasons or postponing them, and I think we all knew that the NCAA was going to be next,” head coach Greg Clink said.

Despite the disappointment, this news was not of much surprise. They were prepared and handled it well.

Prior to the cancellation of the NBA, NCAA Division I and then NCAA Division II basketball, the possibility of allowing no spectators to attend the games was heavily discussed. The games would still be able to be played without any fans in the stands. However, this did not turn out to be the case. 

Chico State Wildcats’ #25 Justin Briggs reacts to a block against Cal State Stanislaus Warriors in the second half of their CCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament on Tuesday, March 3, 2020 in Chico, CA.
(Jason Halley/University Photographer/CSU, Chico)

For star senior and record holder Justin Briggs, this would unknowingly be the end of his Wildcat career. 

“I think we have the talent to beat any team we’re faced against… I think we could’ve made a nice run during the tournament,” Briggs said. 

Briggs had quite the year, from breaking the Chico State block record, leading his team to the Elite Eight and most recently being selected to the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) Division II All-West District Team. His senior season has, undoubtedly, been one to remember. 

Big plans are on the mind of Briggs, as he hopes to continue his basketball career beyond college and play abroad. While there is so much unknown in the world currently, he can count on opportunities to come his way once normalcy returns. Opportunities such as development leagues and overseas programs have sparked Briggs’ interest, as he has caught the eye of many coaches and agents.

 A majority of this year’s team, aside from Briggs, will be returning next season. Coach Clink mentioned that typically this time of year is when the team will take two weeks off after the end of the season. 

The team would then start conducting spring workouts in the gym and weight room. Almost everything is still up in the air, and many components could be subject to change. 

Spencer LaShells, a junior forward, is a key returning piece to next year’s squad. He has been working hard on his own to stay active and in shape during this time in hopes of another successful season next year. 

With gyms, workout facilities and basketball courts closed due to COVID-19, athletes are doing their best to keep up their game at home. For LaShells, this includes lots of running. 

“Staying in physical shape is all we can think about right now… when quarantine is done, that’s when we can focus on bettering our game,” LaShells said.

Chico State Wildcats’ head coach Greg Clink (center) makes the calls against Cal State Stanislaus Warriors in the first half of their CCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament on Tuesday, March 3, 2020 in Chico, CA.
(Jason Halley/University Photographer/CSU, Chico)

The unfortunate global circumstances have created a time for many to be alone, work on themselves and hopefully take both a mental and physical break.

No one knows what could have really come of this season once playoffs tipped off. High hopes were carried into playoffs and success was anticipated.     

“I feel like we could’ve gone as far as any other Chico team. The Elite Eight is as far as anyone has ever gone in this program… I feel like we totally could have gotten further,” LaShells said.

The No. 1 ranked team, UC San Diego, only lost one game this season which was against Chico State. Now, one can simply reflect on the outstanding regular season the Wildcats had, finishing with a 23-7 record. 

“I’ve made amends with the way our season ended,” Briggs said. “I’m glad we had a really good regular season—one of our best regular season performances in a long time. I’m just happy that we were able to finish our entire (regular) season.” 

Coach Clink mentioned that it was a team goal all year long to get to the NCAA Tournament. Perhaps, this is a goal that can be set again.  

Karina Cope can be reached at [email protected] or @KarinaICope on Twitter.