The 2020 SEC tournament after its cancellation.

Coming off the previous year’s Final Four run, the 2019-20 Auburn men’s basketball team was hoping to make a run of its own in March. Led by future NBA first-round pick Isaac Okoro and with multiple players from Auburn’s Final Four team returning, the Tigers finished the regular season with an overall record of 25-6, 12-6 in the SEC.

With the regular season wrapped up, the Tigers began preparing for the 2020 SEC Tournament in Nashville scheduled for March 11-15. Unfortunately for Auburn, these aspirations would never come to fruition as the coronavirus shut down postseason conference tournaments across the country and sports as a whole.

Auburn journalism students interviewed several people who lived that turbulent, though historic, week from different perspectives. They provided an inside look into a time when sports were turned upside down by a mysterious virus.

Those interviewed included players Devan Cambridge and Lior Berman, athletics director Allen Greene, assistant coach Steven Pearl, then-basketball SID Cody Voga, team physician Dr. Michael Goodlett, Turner Sports associate director Morgan Wienbrecht, SEC associate commissioner for basketball Dan Leibovitz, sports journalists Justin Lee and Adam Sparks, SEC Network analyst Jimmy Dykes, Auburn alumna Victoria Cumbow, and Dr. William Schaffner of the Vanderbilt medical school faculty.

PART I: COVID discussions leading up to the tournament
PART II: COVID news spreads further, fan attendance gets canceled
PART III: Rudy Gobert’s test leads to sports cancellations
PART IV: The SEC Tournament is canceled
PART V: The NCAA Tournament is canceled

Part I: COVID discussions leading up to the tournament

The season was nearing an end; March Madness was imminent. Teams began to shift their attention toward conference tournaments, as well as the upcoming NCAA championship. While all the excitement and anticipation came early feelings of uncertainty, as the news of a virus spreading across the world cast a cloud loomed over the regularly scheduled cheer. Ahead of the SEC Tournament scheduled for March 11-15, and teams making their way to Nashville for that, conference officials began to notice disturbances from around the sporting world.

Morgan Weinbrecht, associate director, Turner Sports: ​​I didn’t really hear about it at first. I don’t really watch the news, so I started to hear about it through traveling. I was an AD on our NBA game coverage also, so I would travel twice a week. I started hearing about it in airports.

Jacob Hillman, president, The Jungle (Auburn basketball student section): I probably first heard about it at the end of February. I can’t recall a specific moment, but I think it was “There’s this virus out there that’s starting to spread a little.” I think there were a few cases in the Washington and Seattle area and that’s a big traveling point, and it kind of makes sense from Asia where the virus first started.

Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, and member of the NCAA COVID-19 Advisory Panel: Now it would make some people very ill, and put them in the hospital, but it turned out they were the minority. Nonetheless, it was clear this virus could spread readily into all parts of the world, and was going to be a problem. We did not know clearly how big of a problem it would be then, but that became evident in the coming weeks.

Justin Lee, sports editor, Auburn-Opelika News: ​​I never made it to Nashville because I hadn’t gone up there just yet, but we (the Auburn beat reporters) knew COVID would have an impact. It all happened extremely fast, but there was a little process over a week’s time where we were at the last Auburn men’s basketball game at Auburn Arena, and COVID was in China and starting to spread.

Dan Leibovitz, associate commissioner for men’s basketball, SEC: We started circulating emails and texts probably 10 to 14 days before [the tournament], maybe a little bit more. Like the rest of the world, we didn’t know what to make of it, but we knew that it was out there. It just seemed like it was gaining momentum, gaining steam, all of a sudden now it’s in the United States.

Hillman: I didn’t think anything of it because we’ve always had these viruses that get mentioned and people think “Oh this could turn into something,” and nothing happens. This one I thought the same thing. It’s no big deal and we’ll be past it within a month. But then…

Weinbrecht: I also had heard about West Nile and swine flu and felt like “We’ve been through this before.” Not to this level, but that was my mindset at the time, like “OK there’s a new version of the flu running around. There’s a new version of the flu every year.”

Lee: Of course, the first thing the SEC did was ban the media from being in the locker room. It was like every hour we got an email that a new restriction was coming. But we knew that the SEC Tournament was in jeopardy a week away. It was almost like dominos falling. It began with no media in the locker room, then no fans at all, to eventually the tournament being canceled. It was really bizarre to see the dominos fall. It felt like we were in a movie. I had never been part of anything like it.

Weinbrecht: We never had any internal conversations about it at work in January. When February rolled around, it started to change a little bit. There started to be conversations about “Do we keep traveling people?”

Hillman: The year before [in the SEC Tournament], Auburn beat Tennessee [in the title game] as the number five seed, and that sparked the Final Four run. This year they go to Tennessee, who was ranked at the time, beat them down [the Tigers won 85-63 in that March 7, 2020 game, ahead of the SEC Tournament], and it just felt like, “This is deja-vu; this could spark another run.”

It was just an exciting time. All the road games that I had attended that year Auburn had lost, and I had been to quite a few. There was a joke going around, “Hillman curses it.” Auburn finally won so it was a big joke between all my friends that Auburn finally won while I was there. It was exciting. And then, obviously, everything turned.

PART I: COVID discussions leading up to the tournament
PART II: COVID news spreads further, fan attendance gets canceled
PART III: Rudy Gobert’s test leads to sports cancellations
PART IV: The SEC Tournament is canceled
PART V: The NCAA Tournament is canceled