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By 4 p.m. ET on the second Thursday of March, it seemed all over for Duke. This is way the Blue Devils’ 24-year NCAA tournament streak likely ended, not with a bang but a positive COVID test.

“As we have seen over and over, this global pandemic is very cruel and it is not yet over,” Mike Krzyzewski released in a statement. “As many safeguards as we implemented, no one is immune to this terrible virus.”

By 4 p.m. on the second Thursday of March, it was all over for Kentucky. This is the way the Wildcats’ second losing season in 94 years ended, not with a bang but a 74-73 defeat by Mississippi State in their first game in the SEC tournament. This isn’t what it’s supposed to mean in Kentucky when they say one-and-done. The 9-16 record is officially in the books, and the worst in Lexington since 1927, which was only eight years after the last big global pandemic. John Calipari said he’d assess the season later but did mention something, and how 2021 was this? “One of the things I’m proud of is, we went five months with no positive tests on the staff or the team.”

PLAY ALONG: Get your printable 2021 NCAA bracket here

By 4 p.m. on the second Thursday of March, it was all over for Villanova. This is the way the Wildcats’ Big East tournament ended, not with a bang but a last-second loss to Georgetown, who took 23 free throws and made them all. That would be the 10th No. 1 seed to lose in its conference tournament so far. Villanova will head for the NCAA tournament with three defeats in four games, and there is reason to wonder if the Wildcats are too banged up to last long.

By 4 p.m. on the second Thursday of March, it was all over for Michigan State. At least in the Big Ten tournament; it’s up to the NCAA selection committee after that. This is the way the Big Ten tournament ended for the Spartans, not with a bang but an 11-point loss to Maryland after leading by 12. The difference in points off turnovers was 27-2 for Maryland. “I don’t know what changes for us in the big picture,” said Tom Izzo, who berated himself for getting too emotionally overwrought about the officials. “I should be a little more mature than I was, a lot of people would agree with me.” Michigan State is 15-12 and will have to wait until Sunday to find out its fate.

TOURNEY TIME: Complete 2021 March Madness schedule and dates

By 4 p.m. on the second Thursday of March, you could see how the pandemic has not yet let go of the game. It was the time to notice, because at 4 p.m. on the second Thursday of March in 2020, give or take a few minutes, the headlines exploded about college basketball shutting down, including the NCAA tournament.

On this day in 2020, Rutgers and Michigan were yanked off the court just before tip-off at empty Bankers Life Fieldhouse. At least the Big Ten played this year, Maryland beating Michigan State with a small crowd in the Lucas Oil Stadium stands. As Izzo walked off the floor with his head down, workers were already pulling out ladders to sanitize the backboards. The announcer was repeating the message about how fans were welcome but only if they followed the protocols. The last sentence was delivered in one-word installments so the message was inescapable. Wear. Your. Mask. 

Izzo started this season in COVID isolation after a positive test and now he and his team will stay in Indianapolis, keeping mostly to themselves and trying to stay out of harm’s way. They can’t enter the controlled environment until they know they’re in the tournament Selection Sunday. It’ll be a different brand of isolation he has to face. “I don’t have to do anything, I get to do it,” Izzo corrected. “It’s a privilege. I get a chance.”

On this day in 2020, Creighton and St. John’s were stopped at halftime, the last college basketball anyone would play in the 2019-20 season. At least Georgetown and Villanova got in their entire Big East tournament game. Madison Square Garden was thinly populated but there was a final score, anyway.

On this day in 2020, the NCAA basketball selection committee had voted to call off the tournament, sending the matter to the Board of Governors for a final decision. By 4 p.m it was official. At 4 o’clock this second Thursday of March, the NCAA basketball committee sat in a meeting room a five-minute walk away from Lucas Oil Stadium, working on the bracket.

MARCH MADNESS: Track all automatic bids

By 4 p.m. on the second Thursday of March, top-seeded Toledo had barely gotten by Ball State in overtime. Virginia had beaten Syracuse at the buzzer. Oklahoma State had rallied past West Virginia by three points. South Florida, a team that went 31 days without a game earlier this season, had edged Temple by two points. Villanova and Kentucky had lost by one. And was that Baylor having trouble in the second half with 9-19 Kansas State? Heck of a day. But there was an empty court in Greensboro where Duke and Florida State should have been.  A reminder on this second Thursday of March that college basketball has come a long way since 4’clock a year ago, but it is not yet free.

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