It was a moment made for March. Sam Merrill, the Mountain West's reigning player of the year, had played 112 minutes of basketball in less than 72 hours. His Utah State Aggies' NCAA tournament hopes were hanging on winning this conference tournament title game against the San Diego State Aztecs. With the score tied, an exhausted Merrill dribbled the ball near midcourt as the clock ticked under 10 seconds.
In November, before the college basketball season began, Utah State had been picked to win the Mountain West. The Aggies were No. 17 in the preseason AP poll. San Diego State, meanwhile, didn't receive a single vote. But it had been the Aztecs' season. They started the year 26-0, climbed to No. 4 in the country and wrapped up the Mountain West regular-season title by the second week of February, with four games left to go. They entered the conference tournament with a 28-1 record and with their eyes on a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance.
Now, Merrill was trying to carve out any space between himself and KJ Feagin's smothering defense. He tried a couple of crossovers, but Feagin kept a hand in Merrill's pocket. With five seconds left, and Feagin still in his face, Merrill rose up from 25 feet and faded away. He stumbled backward and fell as he watched his shot sail through the net.
The Aztecs had a chance to answer, but star player Malachi Flynn's half-court heave rimmed out. As the buzzer sounded, Aggies bounced across the floor in ecstasy. San Diego State players, stunned, put their hands on their heads and sulked. After the game, in the locker room, Flynn tried to shoulder the blame, but teammates wouldn't let him. By the time their plane had touched down in San Diego that night, they'd resolved to use the loss as an extra incentive to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. It had stung, but it was a reminder that, moving forward, the season could end at any moment.
"At the time, when you lose that game, you're not thinking it's your last game," said Flynn, a redshirt junior. "We wanted to win, don't get me wrong. But win or lose, we were going to get a really good seed in the tournament, and we were going to have a chance to go far. But I guess the end always comes before you're ready."
Four days later, the sports world came to a complete stop. That Wednesday night, San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher was watching ESPN when he saw the news that Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz had tested positive for the coronavirus. He watched live as the NBA suspended its season. He and his players had already prepared themselves to play the tournament without fans. When he shared that news, he told them that he'd been part of a lot of great firsts in his career, and his next one would be to lead a team to the Final Four without fans for the first time. It was a journey that could have culminated in Atlanta this weekend. But that night, he was less sure of what to say. He pulled out his phone. His fingers hovered over the keyboard.
When compared to the other costs of the coronavirus, sports cancelations can seem trivial. Many have died. Many more have been infected or affected, physically, financially or emotionally. Dutcher knew his players would find perspective, but he also didn't want to dismiss their disappointment or pain. This San Diego State team had been special. It had been the last unbeaten program in college basketball for a month. It had set a school-record 26-game winning streak and had been the first team in the country to notch 30 wins. And it was about to have a chance to make a Final Four run without leaving the state of California.
The NCAA wouldn't make an official announcement until the next day, but Dutcher knew what Gobert's diagnosis meant. He texted his players to warn them: The season was likely over. He asked them to come by his office one by one the next day.
"I didn't spend any time feeling sorry for myself," Dutcher said. "I felt awful for the players. As a coach, you have the chance to go to another tournament. But so many of our players had never been to the tournament. For them to go 30-2 and not have a chance to go to the Dance was really sad."
By the time the players started streaming into his office early Thursday afternoon on the West Coast, the news was official. The Aztecs had accomplished so much more than anyone outside Southern California had expected before the season began, but they wouldn't have the chance to make history.
"It hurt," Flynn said. "It hurt a lot. We'd heard all year that we weren't playing the best competition, that we weren't as good as our record. It gave us an edge. The last loss gave us another edge. We were ready to prove how good we were. We would have proved it."
Two years ago, Malachi Flynn typed a paragraph on his Notes app, took a screenshot of it and hit send on the tweet announcing he would transfer. In high school, he'd received scarcely any Division I interest. But he'd developed into an elite scorer in two years at Washington State and wanted to continue to develop at a school where he could also win. Brian Dutcher was the first coach to come visit him in Pullman. As they watched film, Dutcher told Flynn how far he and the Aztecs could go together. They'd made the NCAA tournament seven of the previous 10 seasons, and they'd do that—and then some—with Flynn in the fold.
When Dutcher left Pullman and flew to Tacoma to meet with Flynn's family on his own, Flynn was convinced. After sitting out last season because of transfer rules, Flynn became one of four key fresh faces for the Aztecs this season. The team also picked up Feagin (Santa Clara) and Yanni Wetzell (Vanderbilt) as grad transfers, and added Trey Pulliam from the junior college ranks. Dutcher had assembled a Frankenstein's monster of a roster, and he hoped it'd be just as scary.
"All of them wanted to win more than anything," Dutcher said. "That's what made this team special. They sacrificed what they were. Trey had started almost every game in junior college. KJ had averaged 18 points a game. Malachi had taken like 700 shots in two seasons. They all sacrificed something individually so that together we could be something special."
Dutcher first started sensing that his team could be special after coming from behind to beat BYU on the road in the second game of the season. Then, when the Aztecs played in the Las Vegas Invitational during Feast Week in late November and beat Creighton and Iowa by double digits, he was convinced. So were his players. "We beat these really good teams in hostile environments before we'd even really formed our identity," said Wetzell, a forward. "Then we kept winning and we really found ourselves. We had a really good shot of going all the way with this team."
They entered 2020 with a perfect 13-0 record. They began conference play by going 15-0 and beating their opponents by an average of 14.5 points. Before the championship game against Utah State, the Aztecs only lost once, to top-100 team UNLV by three points. They were one of only four teams to finish in the top 15 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency on kenpom.com. And they also had one big advantage going into the Big Dance. After missing 19 games because of a blood clot in his lungs, 6'10" center Nathan Mensah was expected back in the lineup in time for the tournament.
"It might have been our year," Dutcher said. "I thought we had a chance. A really good chance. It's the NCAA tournament, so you can't predict what will happen. But our metrics were high. And no one adds a piece like Nathan—a rim protector with a 7'4" wingspan—during the tournament. People wouldn't have been able to bully us. We were going to be the bullies."
But his team's last moment together wasn't cutting down the nets after a championship or even a regional. The Aztecs didn't get the chance to qualify for the Elite Eight for the first time in school history. Instead, the last time they met together was on that Tuesday, March 10, after practice. That's when Dutcher told them they'd play the NCAA tournament without fans. By the time the everything was canceled two days later, the university had also axed all spring sports, barred meetings of more than 10 and moved classes online.
"We were a Final Four team," junior forward Matt Mitchell said. "At the very worst, we were going to the Elite Eight. We were strangers at the beginning of the year, but we got on the same page so quickly. We would have come together in the tournament and stuck like glue."
Instead, players had to say their goodbyes in passing as they slipped in and out of Dutcher's office or met on campus for meals. Even in the best years, your time to shine in college basketball is only ever a single moment. But you transfer schools and move hundreds of miles and practice thousands of hours and sweat through dozens of games for that one fleeting moment anyway. What happens when it's denied?
By the next week, when the NCAA tournament had been scheduled to tip off, San Diego State's team had separated. With practices canceled, many packed their bags and headed home to be with their families as they finished their courses online. Others remained behind.
Matt Mitchell is from nearby Riverside and can drive home whenever he's ready. For now, he's been running around campus with his almost two-year-old pit bull and lab mix, named Belle, and playing a board game based on an episode of the dystopian television show Black Mirror. Yanni Wetzell and his roommate (and teammate), Nolan Narain, have also stayed in town. Wetzell, who is from New Zealand, and Narain, a Canadian, were hoping to see their families for the first time in months at the NCAA tournament. Instead, they're thousands of miles away and wondering, like so many, if returning home would risk harming their loved ones.
In order to get the guys out of their house and to continue to feed them, every day a coach will meet the players who are still in town at a restaurant to buy them dinner. Last week, when Wetzell saw Dutcher at Chipotle, he asked his normally clean-shaven coach if the store had run out of razors. The players can't eat together because of California's lockdown, but seeing friendly faces—from the safe distance of six feet—has been a salve.
But the food does come with a catch. On the first day that the coaches announced the new meal plan, Mensah casually mentioned in a group text that food would be for returning players only. It was the beginning of a series of jokes that haven't relented, in part aimed at trying to convince Flynn to return for another season at San Diego State.
Flynn, the breakout star of the team, finished the season averaging 17.6 points and a nearly 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Once an unheralded recruit, Flynn is now a projected second-round draft pick. With the NBA season suspended, neither he nor any other draft hopefuls know what the next few months will hold. Dutcher has encouraged him to put his name in for the draft to get feedback from NBA teams, and his teammates support him, too. But they want him back to finish what this team started.
"It definitely gives you something to think about it," Flynn said. "You grow up wanting to play in the NCAA tournament. You see guys go from good players to household names. It happens every March. And you want that chance, too. It's why you go to a school like San Diego State. I think we were getting ready to go to a Final Four, and after that happens, anything can happen. It sucks 'cause everyone can say that. But what we did this season speaks for itself."
He has found some relief from the otherwise relentless wondering. He went home to Tacoma last week and located something he's been hunting since the season abruptly ended. Through a friend of a friend—he won't say who and he won't say where, for fear that the whole operation would shut down if he's discovered—he has gained access to an indoor basketball court. He goes every day and either has the place to himself or brings along his brother Isaiah. One day, he hopes, life will return to normal and he'll be able to make decisions about his future with a calm heart and a clear mind. For now, though, it feels good just to play again.
ESPN's Jay Bilas joins David Gardner on the How to Survive Without Sports podcast to discuss the NCAA's decision to cancel the tournament, how the NBA draft process could change and if the NCAA has already passed the tipping point of letting players profit from their names and likenesses.