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AAC cancels men's basketball tournament

Fort Worth, Texas — When UConn coach Dan Hurley went to bed Wednesday night, he had a strong feeling that the American Athletic Conference men's basketball tournament would be canceled.

The coronavirus outbreak already had shut down or impacted other major sports, including the NBA.

"I didn't think there was any way we were going to be playing (Thursday)," he said.

After a restless night of sleep, Hurley learned only hours before UConn was scheduled to face Tulane in the first round that the AAC officials had decided to cancel the tournament.

"(Wednesday) night we had a pretty good sense when we woke up (Thursday) there was potential for this," Hurley said during a conference call. "Just a surreal situation to be involved in and now just trying to figure out how to get home as quickly and as safely as we can."

While expected, the news still hit Hurley's players hard.

"They're obviously disappointed and just mostly shocked by it," Hurley said. "Couldn't even say sadness because I don't think it's hit home yet. Everyone is shocked, stunned and a little bit frightened."

While UConn players were unavailable to comment, senior Christian Vital reacted on Twitter.

"WOW! Safety First Of Course. But Hearing That Just Now Hurt. Hoping Everyone Can Stay In Great Health During This Time."

AAC commissioner Mike Aresco made the decision to cancel the tournament after speaking with member athletic directors and other conference officials. On Wednesday, the league banned fans outside of family members from attending games.

Thursday's announcement came only about 75 minutes before the tournament opener between Central Florida and South Florida.

Aresco addressed the matter during a news conference inside Dickies Arena. Later Thursday, the AAC suspended spring sports competition until further notice.

"We felt there was no way that we could really defend playing the games," Aresco said. "You hate to have them miss an opportunity like this. ... But you realize that your first priority is always the health and safety and well-being of your student-athletes and that was our primary concern."

"We felt we were up against a tough timeline and ultimately made the decision to cancel the tournament," he said. "Now we understand that other conferences have done that. We're not surprised."

By late afternoon, conference tournaments across the country and the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments all were canceled.

It's a strange and sudden ending to UConn's seven seasons in the AAC. The Huskies are moving to the Big East Conference next season. The Big East actually began its quarterfinal round on Thursday at Madison Square Garden, but the game between St. John's and Creighton was stopped at halftime.

They had hoped to leave the AAC holding the conference tournament trophy. They were riding some serious momentum from winning eight of their last 10 games. They also put themselves in good position to potentially earn a post-season berth.

The program is on the rise in Hurley's second season. UConn finished 19-12 overall after suffering through three straight losing seasons.

But all of that took a back seat Thursday.

"It's hard to think about the basketball part of this," Hurley said. "There's nothing more important than the health and well-being of the people that you care about. Family and people that are close to you, that's all you can think about right now."

"The only thing about the sport aspect of it, which pales in comparison to any risk you would take from a medical standpoint, is not being allowed to finish your season on the court," he said. "You do get robbed of the opportunity to walk off the court with the people that you've gone to battle with for a long time and that's a very emotional experience. Not having that last locker room together after victory or defeat, that's the only thing that crossed my mind today."

On Wednesday night, Dr. Deena Casiero, UConn's director of sports medicine and head team physician, spoke to and took questions from the players during a team meeting.

The players already were on edge after seeing rapid-fire developments on social media and the stunning development that the NBA suspended its season.

"The meeting room was buzzing at that point about the virus and how it was impacting sports," Hurley said. "The last four or five days and particularly the last 24 hours, if somebody coughed, you had people freaking out. ... This is a scary situation. Everybody is hyper-sensitive."

Hurley talked with athletic director David Benedict about the different scenarios and weighed options. There were internal discussions about possibly not participating in the AAC tournament even if it went on as scheduled.

"How hard these guys have competed all year, this team loves to play," Hurley said. "But it would have been hard based on the way this thing is going to lead this team on the court. Thankfully, I was not put in that position."

Benedict, in a statement released later Thursday through the university, said, "I am supportive of the American's decision to cancel its men's basketball conference tournament amid concerns surrounding the COVID-19 coronavirus. This decision was made to protect the well-being of our student athletes, fans and staff and ensuring their well-being is our top priority."

In the immediate future, Hurley's biggest concerns are his team's safety and plan for his players once they return to campus.

UConn announced on Wednesday it will hold only online classes after students return from spring break and until at least April 6.

"Just to have some steps in place when we return to try to keep everyone as safe as possible...," Hurley said. "I'd imagine a number of our players will be staying on campus through this. We're going to have to continue to be vigilant."

g.keefe@theday.com

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