Hawkeyes 'melancholy,' fans shocked when Big Ten Tournament is canceled due to coronavirus

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Frank Garza had just finished a pregame meditation session with his son, Luka, and Iowa basketball teammate Bakari Evelyn on Thursday when word arrived that the Big Ten Conference Tournament was canceled.

The Hawkeyes hadn’t even left their downtown hotel for the short trip to Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and their tournament was over. Later in the afternoon, they learned their season was over as well. The NCAA canceled all remaining winter tournaments and the entire spring season of college athletics.

Frank Garza described the Hawkeye players as “melancholy” after hearing they would not be competing in Indianapolis.

But the decision to halt spectator sports while the world tries to curtail a coronavirus pandemic came as no surprise to Garza. The resident of Washington, D.C., had felt it was inevitable for days, although he kept that thought hidden from his son.

The Big Ten logo dominates a lightly trafficked Monument Square in downtown Indianapolis on Thursday after the conference announced it was pulling the plug on the men's basketball tournament over coronavirus concerns.

“It was just politically coming to the point where there was no other choice but to cancel,” Frank Garza said.

“If we have all the information, then I think there’s no choice but to do what’s being done, because what’s the price of one life?”

Luka Garza was set to put the finishing touches on the finest season in Hawkeye men’s basketball history. He shattered the single-season points record with 740, setting himself up for all-American honors and more. But the junior center and his 25th-ranked team instead headed back to Iowa City on Thursday afternoon.

That meant the end of the Hawkeye playing careers for Evelyn, Ryan Kriener and Riley Till.

Kriener’s mother, Nancy, wasn’t yet ready to talk with a reporter Thursday about the emotions the player’s families are feeling.

“It’s extremely heart-breaking, especially being a parent of a senior and knowing the NCAA is most likely going to be the next to cancel,” Nancy Kriener said in a Twitter message to the Register before that formal announcement was made. “It’s every player’s dream to play in the NCAA Tourney — they work their whole lives for that chance and it feels like they are being cheated out of that work.”

► Leistikow: Surreal, lasting imagery at a Big Ten Tournament canceled over coronavirus concerns

Hawkeye players, who earned the 5-seed in this tournament and were set to face 12-seed Minnesota at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, were not made available for media interviews.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery released a statement of support for the decision to cancel the event after two games were played in front of fans on Wednesday evening.

“I am incredibly proud of my team and this decision does not diminish everything that we have accomplished this season,” he said. “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.”

The Big Ten initially announced during Wednesday’s first game that subsequent sessions of the tournament would be held without fans, but only immediate family members of the players present. That had been the initial recommendation of the NCAA.

That was the first round of disappointment for Amanda Cox, who had driven from Des Moines to Indianapolis with her husband and four other friends to root for the Hawkeyes. She arrived just in time to hear the news that the $2,500 worth of tickets they had bought would go unused, although the money would be refunded.

A stadium worker clears basketballs from the floor at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Thursday morning. The rest of the Big Ten Tournament was canceled.

“We’ve been planning this since last year,” Cox, 36, said of her first trip to the Big Ten Tournament. “We were just really excited to see the Hawkeyes because they’re really good.”

“If there was a year you were going to pay the money to do it, this would be the year,” agreed Sarah Daugherty, also 36 and Cox’s longtime friend.

The group of fans woke up Thursday with their excitement restored, figuring they’d at least get to watch Iowa’s game on TV at the Punch Bowl, a sprawling bar and restaurant downtown that was the designated spot for the Hawkeye faithful to gather. They arrived at 11 a.m. to be sure to get good seats but found the place nearly deserted. They were stunned to hear news of the cancellation just minutes before the first game between Rutgers and Michigan was set to begin.

“We’ve got to err on the side of caution, but it is really devastating,” Cox said an hour later, sitting in a lounge chair with a perfect view of a big-screen TV while the men in the group played a game of bags around the corner. “I’m fortunate to be healthy and middle-aged and able-bodied. So I get it if it’s the safety protocol, but it still sucks.

“I wish they would have been able to make this decision sooner, because we literally drove eight hours and then found out all of this.”

The Hawkeye fans from Des Moines planned to stay in Indianapolis for the weekend anyway, joking that there won’t be any issues getting reservations at the restaurants downtown.

That’s what Nate Watson will do as well. The 34-year-old native of Fort Madison drove down from his current home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with a group of Wolverine fans to cheer on his Hawkeyes. He spent more than $350 for lodging at an Airbnb, put on his black-and-gold overalls and prepared for a weekend of Big Ten basketball.

He was surprised at the turn of events.

“I figured if the tournament started, we’d be good to go,” Watson said Thursday on the patio outside O’Reilly’s Irish Bar, which was set to cater to Michigan fans.

“I guess that’s where we are right now with the whole coronavirus. You’ve got to protect the people,” said Watson, who works as a groundskeeper at the University of Michigan.

Watson was upset that this Hawkeye season was destined to end prematurely, the last game a 78-76 loss at Illinois on Sunday.

“They could have gone pretty far because Garza’s unstoppable,” he said. “They showed a lot of heart.”

The Hawkeye players returned to a campus making dramatic adjustments to try to prevent an outbreak of coronavirus. Students are on spring break next week and then will take classes online-only for the foreseeable future.

Frank Garza said he advised his son to instead come home to D.C. to continue his studies, after the abrupt conclusion of a basketball season that saw him average 23.9 points per game. He said Luka took the news hard Thursday.

Frank Garza tried to ease his son’s anguish by pointing out to him that U.S. Olympic athletes lost out on four years of training when President Jimmy Carter ordered a boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow.

“There are also young women and men that are in armed services around the world that aren’t coming home ever,” Frank Garza added.

“It helps put it in perspective, but it doesn’t take away the pain of the moment. Because these seniors deserve a chance to go to the Big Dance and to end their collegiate careers in a positive note. This is literally something outside their control that is dictating events and they have no choice but to comply.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.