Around 10 a.m. on Thursday, Ohio State began an extensive post-breakfast walk-through in a room at its hotel.
At the time, the team still had a game – against Purdue, scheduled to tip off at 6:30 p.m. – for which it needed to prepare.
After about 45 minutes, Chris Holtmann wrapped up, sending his players off to do what they wanted, telling them that they planned to meet back at the hotel in an hour and a half. During the lull, he and a few staff members began to take a walk through Indianapolis. Less than an hour later, just before the news became public, athletic director Gene Smith called him to alert him of the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament cancellation due to concerns about COVID-19.
“Gene and I had been talking late last night and into this morning, and we had both talked about the idea that this was likely,” Holtmann told reporters in Indianapolis around 2 p.m. on Thursday. “So I can't say that this was too surprising. But obviously when you had teams warming up, I just was under the assumption that the day was going to go ahead and happen, so I was a little bit surprised.”
The first call Holtmann made, he says, was to Andre Wesson, the team’s sole scholarship senior.
At the time, he didn’t know that the NCAA would soon decide to cancel its own tournament, but he understood there was a legitimate chance that Wesson had already played his final game as a Buckeye. Danny Hummer, a walk-on from Upper Arlington, is also a senior.
Holtmann twice said notifying them was the “hardest part” of the Big Ten tournament cancelation.
“They get it, they understand,” Holtmann said before the NCAA tournament cancellation. “But it's the hardest part. Now we only have two seniors, which I guess makes it a little bit easier. We're still assuming that our season's going to continue. We've had a really enjoyable last six weeks. They all sat in that room and talked about how excited they are about continuing to play in the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA tournament. They have a very good way about them right now. They do. So I think it's different if maybe you didn't feel that way, but it was a really hard conversation.”
At the time Holtmann spoke, around 2 p.m. on Thursday, the NCAA tournament still hung in the balance.
Based on the mass cancelations across the world of sports, even by then it had become harder by the hour to imagine it taking place, but the NCAA has not made any declarations other than that it planned to play games without fans, allowing only essential personnel to attend.
Despite an understanding that there might be no Madness in March, Holtmann said Ohio State was still approaching the NCAA tournament as though it’ll happen. He said players would get dismissed once the team arrives back in Columbus, then they’d come together to have a watch party at his house on Sunday to see the bracket reveal.
That, of course, now will not happen. And even at the time, Holtmann saw the worst-case scenario – an NCAA tournament cancellation – as exceedingly possible.
“I think we probably all see where this is headed,” Holtmann said. “We're just trying not to be too premature. But I think we all see where it's headed.”
Holtmann said he had some concerns about the health and safety of his team before the Big Ten tournament got canceled. He also noted that all of his players wanted to play.
“Surreal seems to be the common word, I think, for all of us,” Holtmann said. “Really, I don't think we could've thought of this in our wildest imaginations that this is what would be taking place. We understand it. We support the Big Ten. I certainly do. I know Gene Smith, our athletic director, does. We feel like it was the right decision and the right call. You started to sense, as of last night, that this potentially could be what takes place. I think there were just too much concerns about where this was headed.”
Before it got canceled entirely, Holtmann said he would “love” to have the NCAA tournament postponed to a later date, if possible.
“You think about the schools that are in it the first time or the first time in a while, Rutgers in our league is going to be in the tournament for the first time in a while,” Holtmann said. “You think about all the small schools, whether it's a Robert Morris that clinched their berth, you'd love to be able to see those teams play in what I think is the most suspenseful, greatest sporting event around.”
Instead, the NCAA canceled it entirely, ending both Ohio State’s season and Wesson’s and Hummer’s careers in the name of preventing the spread of COVIDA-19.