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COVID Sidelines NC College Basketball Teams

The Duke University Blue Devils dropped out of the NCAA tournament due to COVID-19 concerns.
The Duke University Blue Devils dropped out of the NCAA tournament due to COVID-19 concerns.

COVID-19 knocked out a couple of North Carolina college teams from their conference tournaments. A few others, meanwhile, made the NCAA, and former Panthers quarterback Cam Newton got a new contract. Plus, state legislators are putting the North Carolina High School Athletic Association under the microscope. Langston Wertz Jr., a longtime sportswriter with the Charlotte Observer, joins WFAE's Gwendolyn Glenn with more on those stories.

Langston Wertz Jr.: Hey Gwen, how are you doing?

Gwendolyn Glenn: All is well. So, the coronavirus is a lingering dark cloud over most sports. And this past week, it hit Duke's men's basketball team for the first time.

Langston Wertz Jr, a longtime sportswriter for the Charlotte Observer.
Langston Wertz Jr.
Langston Wertz Jr.

Molly Qerim Rose (recording): Breaking news now into the first take. The Blue Devils are scheduled to play for the state in the ACC quarterfinals on Thursday and ultimately need a couple more wins to get into the tournament. But they have now dropped out and that is due to COVID-19.

Glenn: Now, Langston, I heard one person tested positive with the team. What have you heard?

Wertz: Yeah, I heard the same thing. It was a walkaround player on the team that tested positive. And after that, (the athletic director) for Duke, Kevin White, called it a season.

Glenn: Now, Duke had to win the ACC tournament in order to be in the NCAA, right?

Wertz: They would have needed to do really well. They were making a run and they had beaten Boston College, but like 35 to Louisville by 14. They were a hot team at the time, and they made it to the championship game. Maybe they would have gotten it. Who knows?

Glenn: And this will be the first time Duke won't appear in the NCAA since 1995, right?

Wertz: Yeah, it's been an amazing run for them, I think. Twenty-six straight years they've been to the tournament, but this season Duke had lost three straight games going into the ACC Tournament. That really hurt them.

Glenn: OK, and North Carolina A&T State University Aggies in Greensboro men's basketball team was forced out of the Middle Eastern Atlantic Conference — MEAC —tournament due to a COVID-19 positive test as well. They were top seed right?

Wertz: Gwen they were chasing their first NCAA bid in eight years. And they really looked like they had a chance to do it. But what happened was an assistant coach tested positive, and then a retest showed a second positive result. Now the A&T coach, Will Jones, said once they get back to campus, that same coach tested negative three times.

So ultimately, AT&T didn't get a chance to play in the MEAC semifinal, which they would have needed to win the conference tournament to go to the NCAA. Last year, kind of the same thing happened. They won the division, qualified for the semifinals, and COVID shut everything down. So, that's a really tough break for the Aggies.

Glenn: So, with the NCAA brackets out, five area teams are in. UNC Chapel Hill, UNC Greensboro in North Carolina and Appalachian State. In South Carolina, Clemson University and Winthrop University. Langston, how do you think they will do?

Wertz: UNC is going to play Wisconsin. That's a really tough Big 10 team. Big Ten is the best conference in the country this year. They will probably play Baylor after that. But Gwen, you know, hot take, I'm going to take the chalk. The Tar Heels to go to the Sweet Sixteen. I like their size. You know, Coach Williams has a way of getting them going in the tournament.

UNC Greensboro's going to play Florida State. Florida State's just a tough matchup for anybody. I really like Florida State — probably by double digits. Clemson's playing Rutgers and then Houston. Cleveland State, I definitely think Clemson wins Round 1. Winthrop plays Villanova — I think it ends there. App State is in the tournament for the first time in 21 years. And they have never won an NCAA tournament game, Gwen. I think they win one against Norfolk State in the play-in game. But the reward is to play the best team in the tournament, Gonzaga, so I think it ends there.

Glenn: Let's shift to the Charlotte Hornets, where the fans are back. Only about 3,000 or so of them, but they were in the house. Here's head coach James Borrego talking on WFNZ about the effect the fans had on the team during their game against the Toronto Raptors on Saturday.

James Borrego (recording): I mean you could feel it from the intros. Our guys were upbeat, even Gordon's bounce. When he got to the rim and dunked that one, I said, "All right, the fans must be back now." So, it was a lot of fun. I mean, it was like NBA basketball is back. That's what it felt like tonight.

Wertz: I think it was great to have fans in the building. Michael Jordan was in the building, and Terry Rozier was in the building, more importantly. I think the Hornets look like a really, really good team — like a playoff team right now.

Glenn: OK, and Langston, we hear about rookie sensation LaMelo Ball all the time and how well he's doing on the court. But what about guard Terry Rozier? ... Rozier is averaging 20 points per game this season and shooting nearly 50% from the field. Like Ball, is Rozier outperforming the expectations that were out there when he was acquired by the team last season?

Charlotte Hornets Guard Terry Rozier

Wertz: You know, what I think is he's kind of living up to the expectations now, because I think he was criticized heavily when he came in on a relatively big contract where they got rid of Kemba (Walker) and brought him in. Gwen, he's one of the most clutch players in the NBA. He had 4 points in 10 seconds against Golden State for a win.

Last week, he had 12 points in 3:11 to help beat the Pistons at home, which would have been an awful loss because the Pistons are like 10-27. The NBA says clutch time is the final five minutes of a game when the margins are at least 5 points or less. The Hornets are the best of the league in crunch time, and Terry Rozier is the best on the Hornets. In 39 clutch time minutes, he's scored 48 points.

Glenn: Sounds great. And also in NFL free agency news, former Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (signed again) with the New England Patriots. Now, this is his second consecutive one-year contract with them. Tell us about the deal.

Wertz: It almost looks like a backup deal. I mean, I think it's $5.1 million if he's healthy, and it goes up to $6.6 million if he is a starter and $8.6 million if they make the playoffs and he can make bonuses up to $13.6 million (total). And honestly, Gwen, last year, the Patriots were a mess.

A lot of the top players opted out due to COVID, and then they had a rash of injuries, so we didn't really get a chance to see what Cam would look like with a fully powered New England team. And obviously, Coach Bill Belichick is willing to at least give him a chance to come back and compete for a starting job.

Glenn: OK, so March Madness continues this week with the NCAA kicking off on Thursday, and I'm sure you will be watching and updating us next week.

Wertz: Absolutely. We'll be back.

Langston Wertz Jr. is a longtime sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer.