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Dayton's Obi Toppin goes up to dunk during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against George Washington, Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Dayton, Ohio. (AP Photo/Tony Tribble)

Welcome to March Madness held hostage, Day Six.

In a world untouched by the novel coronavirus, the NCAA men's basketball tournament would begin Tuesday night at Dayton (Ohio) Arena with the first two games of the "First Four." The final two of those four would be played Wednesday night with the tourney's main draw beginning Thursday just after noon.

But just in case you haven't noticed, the world's changed a bit since last Thursday, when college basketball closed the book on its 2020 tournaments and everything else pretty much followed suit. Even Disney World shut down on Monday, as sure a sign as any that something unfathomably serious is in our midst.

Still, if you want ground zero for disappointment over the abrupt end of college basketball, Dayton — both the university and the Ohio city 50 miles north of Cincinnati — is your place.

It's bad enough that the aforementioned "First Four" play-in games were casualties of the first cancellation of the NCAA tourney in its 82-year history. That decision is expected to cost Dayton as much as $4.8 million. Beyond that, it adds to an exceedingly rough patch for a community that had nine people killed in a mass shooting last Aug. 4 and an EF4 tornado inflict widespread damage throughout the city three months earlier.

Yet it's the fate of the University of Dayton Flyers, believed by most to have been a near-certain lock for a No. 1 seed, that cuts the deepest emotionally.

Or as Flyers fan Dylan Heitkamp told the Dayton Daily News last week: "As a Dayton fan, I'd rather have seen them lose to a 16 seed (in the NCAA tourney) than for the historic season to end like this."

Owners of a 29-2 overall record, a current 20-game winning streak and no losses before overtime, the Flyers had become the best feel-good story of this incredibly entertaining season prior to the cancellation of both their Atlantic-10 conference tourney and the NCAA tourney.

To make the Flyers and their fans feel even worse, the website Sportsline.com — using the imaginary bracket produced by CBS Sports' Jerry Palm — proclaimed Dayton the NCAA champ after simulating the entire tournament.

According to Sportsline.com (with Palm's bracket as a starting point), Dayton — as the No. 1 seed in the East — would have defeated Winthrop, Saint Mary's, Louisville, Michigan State, Duke and Gonzaga to claim its first national championship in its first Final Four appearance since 1967.

According to Sportsline. com, the Flyers would have beaten Gonzaga 79-78 in the title game after entering as a two-point underdog. According to the simulations, the Flyers won 50.3 percent of the time they faced the Zags.

To further frustrate the Dayton faithful, the NCAA has refused to release the 68-team field it had in place when the tournament was canceled, a field that many believe would have had the Flyers as one of four No. 1 seeds, presumably joining overall No. 1 Kansas, second expected No. 1 seed Gonzaga and Baylor at the top of the brackets.

Personally, I believe a case could have been made for Dayton — assuming it won its A-10 tourney — being the second No. 1 behind the Jayhawks, who beat the Flyers in overtime in Maui in November. Witholding the entire bracket is fine, since we'll never know how last-weekend conference tourneys could have changed the 68-team field. But what harm would it have been to release the No.1s?

Yet this isn't so much about seeds as the premature end of a once-in-a-lifetime season for one of college basketball's most loyal fan bases.

As Dayton walk-on Cam Greer told the Daily News: "This wasn't like the NBA, where everything was suspended or postponed. It was over. Guys' dreams had been crushed just like that. There was so much more we were sure we could do. Now we'll never know. The whole world will never know. It's heartbreaking."

Another perspective: Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, he of the 1,029 wins and 2003 national championship , said of Dayton, "How do you feel if you are the Dayton Flyers? They had a legitimate chance to go to the Final Four and they're done. This is what they've worked their whole life for."

Or as Dayton senior Ryan Mikesell, an Ohio native, posted on social media: "First and foremost, I want to thank the University for giving me the opportunity to represent it for the past 5 years. To see it end like this makes my heart hurt, but I am so grateful to get the opportunity to play at UD. It was an honor to wear 'Dayton' across my chest, and it allowed me to create memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life."

Real heartbreak is the life-ending potential of COVID-19, the dangerous illness caused by the coronavirus. It's 10 times more deadly than the flu and already has killed more than 6,500 worldwide. In terms of new cases, it's picking up steam in this country at an alarming rate, with nearly 4,000 cases total now reported nationwide, though some experts believe it's much higher than that. For instance, Ohio governor Mike DeWine estimates there may be more than 100,000 cases in his state alone.

So even as Flyers fans, players and coaches struggle to accept that their dream season is prematurely done, they do understand why.

"I'm stunned," longtime Dayton supporter Dr. Stephen Levitt told the Daily News. "I'm depressed. But I understand that with the severity of the coronavirus that this had to be done. It was a prudent move by all the of the organizations concerned, and they did not want to be liable if someone got the virus or died."

Added Dayton coach Anthony Grant, once the coach of Alabama: "This is way bigger than basketball."

It just might be the biggest worldwide problem that any of us, regardless of age, have seen in our lifetimes.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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Mark Wiedmer

 

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