Rhoades has been the men’s basketball coach at VCU for four seasons, and the one that ended in Indianapolis on March 20 was, without question, his most satisfying — and his most disappointing. The Rams were picked ninth in the Atlantic 10 in the preseason poll and finished second. They reached the conference tournament final before losing to St. Bonaventure. That night, the 19-7 Rams earned an at-large bid to the NCAA men’s tournament as a No. 10 seed, with a first-round game against Oregon six days later.
“The funny thing is, the guys were really down after we lost the final that afternoon,” Rhoades said. “When our name went up on the board, there was no jumping up and down and celebrating, just, ‘Okay, let’s get going to Indianapolis.’ By the time we got there, guys were getting excited. They realized that the goal we had to start the season had been achieved.”
Because the A-10 title game had been played in Dayton, Ohio, the Rams had only a short bus trip — 117 miles — to their headquarters for the week at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis. Following the NCAA’s strict protocols, they quickly were taken to the 16th floor. Other than hotel personnel, only those connected to the VCU basketball team were allowed on the floor.
Everyone in the traveling party was tested soon after arriving at about 10 p.m., and then they were all sent to their rooms to quarantine. On Monday morning, they were tested again. That night, the tests came back: All were negative. The Rams were free to move around and to practice.
The players were tested again Tuesday morning and went to practice at 1 p.m. By then, they couldn’t wait to play.
“When we got through those first two rounds of testing, I think we all breathed a sigh of relief,” Rhoades said. “We were like everyone else; we’d had starts and stops during the season. … Our guys had been very good about understanding they needed to be careful. The school was doing distance learning, so they pretty much went from their apartments to the practice facility to the Siegel Center. Now we’d made it to Indy, and we were in isolation with no positive tests. We white-knuckled until those tests came back. But then we were good to go.”
The buoyant mood began to change Wednesday, when director of basketball operations Jimmy Martelli and trainer Dennis Williams got a text at 1:20 a.m. telling them there had been a positive test. They went to the player’s room and retested him. He was then placed in isolation and told he wouldn’t be able to play Saturday.
“On the one hand, it was just one guy,” Rhoades said. “On the other hand, I remember [Martelli] saying to me, ‘Once you get one positive test, there’s a good chance there will be more.’ And I remember our team doctor, Seth Cheatham, saying, ‘Covid doesn’t care; it just doesn’t care.’ That was chilling.”
Still, the NCAA had said that as long as a team had enough players to take the court, it could play. On Thursday, everyone was tested again, and Friday morning, the results all came back negative.
“When we got those results back Friday morning,” Rhoades said, “and the contact tracing hadn’t knocked everyone out, I felt like a weight had been lifted from my chest.”
On Friday, everyone was tested at 10:05 p.m. — exactly 24 hours before the game was scheduled to tip off. At 5:14 a.m. — Rhoades remembers the time exactly — he got a call from Martelli: Another player tested positive. He was retested. The result came back at 8:56 a.m.: positive again.
Now two rotation players were out. Rhoades gathered his players and gave them a pep talk. “There’s nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal. Right, Bones?” he said, looking at star sophomore Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland.
“Wounded animal, Coach,” Hyland answered. “Nothing more dangerous. We’re dangerous!”
Because of the positive test, they all had to be retested at 11:30 a.m. The results came back three hours later: two more positives — another player and an assistant coach. Both were retested and again were positive.
It was getting to be time to panic. If VCU got to play, it would do so with eight scholarship players and a walk-on.
Shortly after 4 p.m., Athletic Director Ed McLaughlin got a call from Dan Gavitt, who oversees the men’s tournament, saying that the NCAA was in touch with Marion County health officials.
“We’ll get back to you with a decision as soon as we can,” Gavitt said.
McLaughlin and Rhoades knew this meant the NCAA’s initial promise to let a team play if it had enough healthy players might now be meaningless. The game was six hours away.
An hour went by. Then another. At 6, the hotel staff brought pregame meals to the 16th floor.
Ten minutes later, McLaughlin called Gavitt again. “The first thing he said was, ‘Ed, I’ve got Mitch here with me.’ ” Kentucky Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart was chairman of the basketball committee. “My heart just sank,” McLaughlin said. “I knew what was coming next.”
Gavitt explained that the county’s health officials had said VCU couldn’t play. The positive tests so close to game time made it too risky. The game was declared a no-contest, and Oregon advanced to play (and beat) Iowa in the second round.
McLaughlin’s response was succinct: “F---, you’ve got to be joking.”
How soon, he asked, would the announcement be made?
“We were thinking 6:35,” Gavitt said.
McLaughlin looked at his watch. It was almost 6:20. “You’ve got to give me more time than that,” he said. “I’ve got to let Mike know and let him tell his players. They shouldn’t find out about this looking at their phones.”
Gavitt agreed to wait until 6:45. McLaughlin called Rhoades and told him. His reaction was identical — to the word: “F---, you’ve got to be joking.”
It was now 6:30. Before Rhoades gathered his team, though, he asked Hyland to come to his room. “I knew Bones was going to take it harder than anyone else,” he said. “I didn’t want him losing it in front of his teammates. I sat him down and told him what had happened. He lost it. He kept saying: ‘Coach, this was my lifelong dream, and now they’re taking it away? Just like that?’
“I gave him a towel and told him to wipe his tears away so we could go meet the rest of the guys. We met in the hallway, and I told them. Toughest thing I’ve ever done.”
At Rhoades’s request, the NCAA found a plane to fly the Rams home. They landed just before 2 a.m. The next day, the three players and one coach who had tested positive came home on a socially distanced nine-hour bus ride, accompanied by Cheatham, the team doctor. One more player and another assistant coach tested positive after returning home. All six had to spend 10 days isolating in a Richmond hotel.
“For five days, I was completely gutted,” Rhoades said. “I’m glad it didn’t happen to anyone else, but I kept saying to myself: ‘One team, and it’s us? Why?’ I went into the office one day, and no one was there. The building was dark. I just got into my car and drove around for two hours.
“It took a while, but I realized the NCAA did the right thing. They had no choice. We didn’t do anything wrong, but we had an outbreak. I told the guys later that life’s unfair sometimes but we had to look at this way: We had a great season with an unfair ending, but all we lost was a basketball game. More than 500,000 [Americans] have died in this pandemic. People have lost jobs, businesses, homes. That’s tragic. This is disappointing, a shame, but nothing more.”
Soon after the team came home, Hyland told Rhoades that he was passing on his last two years of eligibility. He’s a likely second-round NBA draft pick. Even without Hyland, Rhoades thinks his team has a chance to be very good next season.
For now, he’s still recovering.
“I was driving downtown last week and decided to buy a Jet Ski,” he said, laughing. “Always wanted one, never bought one. I never buy anything. I bought the Jet Ski. My kids love it. I figured I deserved something.”
They all deserve something. But, as they learned the hard way, Cheatham was right: Covid doesn’t care. For Rhoades and his players, November can’t come soon enough.