PHOENIX – Amid news that NCAA basketball tournament games would be played without fans in attendance, the Pac-12 Tournament was in full swing Wednesday in front of a crowd at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena.
The Pac-12 has not given any indication it will alter its course because of coronavirus concerns. Other conference tournaments are underway with fans in attendance although some, including those hosted by the Big West and Mid-American, will compete in empty arenas.
NCAA President Mark Emmert said he understands the disappointment fans will feel but added, “I have made the decision to conduct our upcoming championship events, including the Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, with only essential staff and limited family attendance.”
The Pac-12 is taking precautions.
Locker room access will be limited to student athletes and essential staff, individual universities will determine if band and spirit squads are in attendance and the Pac-12 Hall of Honor induction ceremony has been rescheduled to 2021. T-Mobile Arena will also feature enhanced cleaning protocols, including increased access to hand sanitizers, the conference said Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the schools will do their best to focus on basketball.
Arizona State, seeded No. 3, concluded the regular season with a hectic win over Washington State to earn a first-round bye. As for fifth-seeded Arizona, it’s all or nothing when it faces No. 12 seed Washington Wednesday afternoon.
Arizona coach Sean Miller told reporters Tuesday that the team hasn’t been able to practice much because of the quick turnaround game. The Huskies beat the Wildcats, 69-63, at McKale Center on Saturday.
“Playing the same team that we just finished playing, that’s also much different from the fact that the game is on Wednesday instead of Thursday,” Miller said. “So, it’s a unique situation really for both teams.”
Meanwhile, ASU will have an extra day to evaluate two teams – Washington State, an opponent the Sun Devils faced a week ago, or Colorado, an opponent they faced in January.
“The first game will be tough,” said Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley. “Because you got to (get) some of the cobwebs off when you are playing in a tournament and you are unfamiliar and the team you are playing against had a day before to play so they are already acclimated and adjusted.
“(The) second game is like you know that if you go all in and you could get that one that no matter how tired you feel on Saturday that you are playing for an opportunity to cut the nets down and I’ve shared that with the team.”
Hurley knows a thing or two about winning conference tournaments, having won two NCAA championships while at Duke during the early 1990s and one as a coach at the University at Buffalo during the 2014-2015 season. While he’s reminisced with his current players about those glory years, he has stressed to them the need to treat their first tournament game no different than they’ve treated the weeks leading up to it, by practicing hard and having a good game plan.about.”
“The only thing I will do is most likely scale back some of our live work this week,” Hurley said. “Hopefully limit some of the possibility, knock on wood, that somebody would get injured in practice. That would be the last thing you would hope that would happen this week.”
Miller, in his 11th year coaching at Arizona, has led the Wildcats to five regular season conference championships and three conference tournament titles.
The depth of this year’s freshman class sets this team apart. Forward Zeke Nnaji leaped to Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, earned conference First Team honors and was recently named USBWA All-District. Guard Nico Mannion, who is averaging 14.0 points and 5.5 assists, earned a conference Second Team.
“It meant the world,” Nnaji said of the FOY award. “First of all credit to the most high because without him I wouldn’t be. He’s blessed me with so many opportunities, and I’m truly grateful for what he’s done for me. It’s something I’ve worked for a very long time and just to be able to be able to get this award it’s something I’ve dreamed about for a while. It’s really humbling.”
ASU has certainly dealt with its share of injuries. Senior forward Mickey Mitchell and redshirt senior guard Rob Edwards both sat out the entire season due to back injuries. Junior guard Alonzo Verge Jr. dealt with a sprained right wrist, causing him to miss ASU’s road games from November 23 to November 26.
Sophomore forward Taeshon Cherry missed three weeks in February due to a right ankle injury suffered on the final play of ASU’s 66-64 win over USC.
But with Cherry and his teammates healthy, the post-season is looking promising.
“I learned a lot,” Verge said of overcoming adversity. “It showed me how strong I am and how dedicated I am to the game because I never been that low before, I always had success playing basketball, and that was something that never happened to me before. I’ve always been the so-called star or whatever you want to call it on the team and I wasn’t at the time.”
The Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year added that the team will need to come together and work as one.
Dealing with the recent death of his grandmother, redshirt junior guard Romello White has dominated as a defensive player averaging 8.8 rebounds per game, second in the Pac-12 Conference. Junior guard Remy Martin tore through the offensive averaging 19.1 points per game that earned him a First Team All-Pac-12 nod.
Still, Martin thought he could have exceeded those expectations by winning the Pac-12 conference.
“It’s very important,” Martin said of the team’s chemistry. “The tightest group you know wins, (that’s) as simple as it gets. At the end of the day there’s going to be so much adversity, there’s going to be so many things that go the opposite way, but it’s a matter of who is going to stay together who is going to fight through adversity and I think that’s what March is all about.”