By Dylan Manfre
After a 17-year absence, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) was set for a triumphant return to New Jersey in 2020. Fanfare and excitement filled historic Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall, only for it to be canceled by a once-in-a-century global pandemic.
There was a unique, unforgettable eeriness from March 11 to 13 that I will never forget. People always ask, “Where were you when the pandemic started?” I covered the second-to-last basketball tournament in the United States before COVID-19 shut down sports.
I remember my dear friend and former student-reporter from Quinnipiac Bobcats Sports Network, Will Fowler, talking to me before Commissioner Rich Ensor’s press conference announcing the cancellation of the tournament and ensuing spring season, saying, “This is history. This is what journalists live for.”
March 12, 2022, marked exactly two years from the cancellation of the tournament. The conference hosted two championship games with Saint Peter’s and Monmouth on the men’s side and a thrilling women’s final that pitted Fairfield against Manhattan.
The 2022 MAAC basketball tournament was what 2020 should have been. It had the glory that 2020 did not get the chance to live out. No one worried about postponements or the results of COVID-19 tests — which were not required for fans to enter the building. Fans were interested in the action, and maybe their appearance since masks were not required.
Buses full of students poured into Boardwalk Hall to watch the games. The pep bands positioned their instruments and played their schools’ fight songs. Cheerleaders from the schools danced and twirled at center court. This was all absent from the last two tournaments.
The upsets demonstrated what the month of March means to die-hard college basketball fans. There’s no better example than No. 9 Rider men’s basketball defeating reigning champion No. 1 Iona on a last-second shot from senior guard Dwight Murray Jr.
Public address announcers relayed information about the teams while fans relaxed and enjoyed themselves. They watched from the cushioned seats of the area instead of their screens at home.
Multiple food options were available, unlike last year when a sole Chickie’s and Pete’s was briefly opened and a six-feet social distancing rule in lines was enforced.
Not only did Boardwalk Hall feature multiple concession options this year, the league also hosted its MAAC-n-Cheese contest, a contest sponsored by Gourmet Dining that put various mac-and-cheese recipes against each other for fans to taste and vote on. The event was supposed to debut in 2020 but was canceled because of COVID-19. It was something new and unique that exemplified why this tournament was special.
It felt like a return to normalcy from a journalism perspective as well. I cannot say enough how happy it made me to see everything done in a normal setting. From in-person press conferences to the contingent of Quinnipiac students carrying cameras and doing stand-up reports in an uncanny amount of navy suits, the lack of pandemic discourse and increase in basketball conversation with Marist student-reporters Jonathan Kinane and Christan De Block was refreshing.
A one-year extension between the MAAC and Boardwalk Hall means the tournament will be back in Atlantic City for the 2022-2023 season. Hopefully, that tournament can be the formal make-up for 2020.
Society is not fully out of the COVID-19 woods yet, but descending case numbers, deaths and hospitalizations indicate we are moving in the right direction. Either way, the five-day tournament was encouraging to see what 2020 could have been.