BOSTON – The last champions of the 2020 men’s college basketball season arrived back on the Boston University campus at 4:45 a.m on Thursday morning.
The BU men’s team spent their 268-mile ride back from Colgate University soaking in the giddy euphoria that comes with upsetting the No. 1 team in the conference on their own floor to clinch an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. It’s a scene that plays out each March, a small school seizing its moment on the big stage.
In the delirious moments after Boston University began celebrating its 64-61 win, the sports world – and real world – spiraled around them. Around the same time BU hoisted the Patriot League trophy, reports emerged of Rudy Gobert’s positive test for COVID-19 and the NBA soon suspended its season.
As the BU team piled onto the bus for the nearly five-hour ride back, coach Joe Jones didn’t want to hear about the chaos unfolding. He wanted to stay locked in on the precious present. Instead of worrying or sulking about potential missed opportunities, Jones channeled all his energy toward appreciation. “I feel blessed for the opportunity to play for a championship,” he told Yahoo Sports on Thursday.
Jones cackled his distinct laugh – head bobbing and mouth open with glee – for nearly all of the five-hour ride back. He wore the net around his neck in the front seat and yelled phone numbers out loud trying to determine who was sending him congratulatory texts. BU snapped a memorable picture of him coming off the bus, pillow in hand.
As the ride transitioned from the New York State Thruway to the Massachusetts Turnpike, his players got up on the bus and turned the celebratory ride into a gentle roast of Jones. They got up to scream out his favorite sayings and act out their favorite moments and memories from the season. It was peak collegiate chicanery.
For much of the ride, the improv show continued, with redshirt sophomore Walter Whyte leading the hijinks with his impression of Jones.
“THE GAME IS GOING TO BE PLAYED IN THE PAINT”
“SPRINT BACK! SPRINT BACK!”
It turned out that BU’s one shining moment ended up being those five hours of celebration. No outsiders. No distractions. Just teammates and coaches trading laughs, jabs and memories from a season that ended with a dream as a nightmare unfurled around them. “I wouldn’t allow myself to go there,” Jones said. “They were talking about [the coronavirus news] around us. Let’s not worry about it. We’ll worry about it tomorrow.”
When tomorrow did come, Boston University hosted a media reception at Case Gymnasium on Thursday that doubled as both a congratulatory reception and a farewell tour. With the campus on spring break, there were only athletes around. Lacrosse players, a variety of coaches from other sports and athletic staff walked through the lobby, slapping players on their shoulders and congratulating them on seizing their moment.
Instead of bemoaning the inevitable cancellation of the tournament, Jones took a wider view. “There are lives at stake,” he said. He told his team how lucky they were to finish the season. The BU women’s basketball game in the Patriot League semifinals was scheduled for Thursday night and canceled.
“I don’t want to have emotion just for my program and my team,” Jones said. “I feel bad for people who’ve lost their lives, for people who’ve lost loved ones, for people who’ve lost seasons. I can’t get into how I feel about myself.”
Jones waited nine years as BU’s head coach to win the Patriot League tournament, and he’d be joining his brother, Yale coach James Jones, in the NCAA field of 68 teams. They spoke on Thursday morning, with James Jones headed to his third NCAA tournament in five years and Joe Jones his first in 16 years as a Division I head coach.
“We were laughing, enjoying the moment,” Joe Jones said. “We talked a little bit about the tournament. The opportunity for us both to have won. He’s won a lot more than I have. It was good that both of us could do it together.
“That would have been a lot of fun. Really cool.”
Jones’ voice trailed off after that. In the hours before the NCAA announced the tournament was off, he was stuck in the awkward place between a career highlight and the inevitability of not seeing it through.
Instead of a being a No. 15 seed in some far-flung city, BU basketball’s crescendo came on I-90 on the night the whole country changed forever. “We just enjoyed the ride with everything going on,” Whyte said. “We took it all in.”
And as Jones walked off the bus in the pre-dawn darkness on Thursday morning, he led the final champions of the 2020 college basketball season. They clearly appreciated the ride.
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