INDIANAPOLIS — The Big Ten men’s basketball tournament was abruptly canceled Thursday just 15 minutes before the first game of the day was scheduled to begin.
The final four days of the tournament were slated to be held without fans in attendance because of concerns about COVID-19, but commissioner Kevin Warren made the decision to call off the remainder of the tournament.
"These are not easy decisions," Warren said, "but it’s a decision I feel comfortable with."
The league issued a statement saying "the Big Ten Conference will use this time to work with the appropriate medical experts and institutional leadership to determine next steps for moving forward in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The main priority of the Big Ten Conference continues to be the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes, coaches, administrators, fans and media as we continue to monitor all developing and relevant information on the COVID-19 virus."
Players from Michigan and Rutgers already were on the court warming up for the first game when the decision was made. Iowa was scheduled to take on Minnesota in the second game of the day, at about 1:30 p.m.
Media and spectators were ordered to vacate the interior of Bankers Life Fieldhouse and Warren addressed reporters shortly after that in the media workroom.
He said he has dealt with concerns about COVID-19 for several weeks, even going so far as to form an infectious disease committee. He said the delay in calling off the tournament was because he wanted to speak to all of the conference’s chancellors and presidents before making such a decision.
He said he also had a brief conversation with NCAA director Mark Emmert just before the announcement was made.
All other conference tournaments also have been canceled along with the NCAA Tournament.
Iowa athletic director Gary Barta issued a brief statement expressing support for the decision.
"This is a fluid situation that is new to all of us," Barta said. "We will continue to monitor information through the Big Ten Conference and NCAA and move forward accordingly."
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said his prayers were with anyone affected by COVID-19 and that the Big Ten made the correct decision.
"While our players, coaches, and fans are all disappointed, the bigger picture of the health and well-being of everyone must be our top priority," he said.
The first two games of the Big Ten tournament were played Wednesday night with fans in attendance, but modifications were made regarding contact between members of the media and athletes and coaches.
Following the first game, between Minnesota and Northwestern, a few athletes were made available only in a news conference setting.
Things changed even more in the second game of the night, between Indiana and Nebraska.
Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg, who complained of not feeling well prior to the game, left the contest early and went to a local hospital. There was no indication that it was related to COVID-19, and Hoiberg, who has a history of heart problems, tweeted out a statement Thursday morning saying he would never do anything "that would put my team, my family or anyone else in harm’s way."
Nebraska players were quarantined and not made available for interviews following the game.
Warren said Hoiberg’s situation was "one of the pieces in the decision-making process," but he said he almost certainly would have canceled the tournament anyway. He said no one involved with the tournament had tested positive for COVID-19.
Indiana also chose to not make its players available after what turned out to be the final game to be played. Coach Archie Miller spoke at a postgame news conference and said the decision to not make players available was influenced by the news that the NBA had just put its season on hold.
"I decided to basically just move those guys as fast as we possibly can to get cleaned up after the game and get to the hotel as fast as possible," Miller explained. "I think, once you start getting the news that we got after the game, I think right now for our players, it's let's get cleaned up, let's get out of here, and let's get back to the hotel where we can keep our group kind of tight and move forward with tomorrow."
Miller said when he told his players after the game about the NBA decision, "it was like telling them a family member was sick or something happened to somebody.
"Obviously, our guys are in tune with what's going on with the virus, but when you say, fellas, you've got to hear this, but the NBA season has just been canceled, you see a bunch of young guys looking at you like, ‘Yeah, what we've been telling you is things are kind of serious,'" Miller said. "Go wash your hands. Make sure you're doing what you're supposed to do right now."