On Dec. 23, third-ranked Villanova dominated Big East foe, Marquette, to move to 8-1 on the season. Four days later, the Wildcats announced that coach Jay Wright and another staff member had tested positive for COVID-19.
Despite pausing practice and all basketball activities in the wake of the news, issues persisted within the program over the next two weeks. Villanova was forced to postpone four games — without makeup dates set. Every time it seemed like the Wildcats could come back, another positive case sent them back to square one. Villanova finally returned to action on Jan. 19, narrowly escaping against Seton Hall, 76-74 — 27 days after beating the Golden Eagles. Whatever momentum the Wildcats had built at the start of the season had seemingly dissipated.
“We got lucky against Seton Hall,” Wright said. “… We weren’t in rhythm.”
Faced with a lengthy layoff of its own, the No. 7 Michigan men’s basketball team hopes to avoid a similar dropoff when — and if — it resumes play. Despite not having any positive tests of their own, the Wolverines are currently in the midst of a 14-day shut down after the novel B.1.1.7 strain was detected within Michigan’s athletic department.
Regardless of whether the Wolverines’ stoppage is slightly misplaced, the interruption is just another example of how the pandemic has disrupted college basketball’s regular season.
“I get our report every morning on our drug tests,” Wright told reporters on Wednesday. “(Director of Program Administration Arleshia Davidson) usually texts me ‘All negative’ with all smiley faces and I send back prayer signs.
“But if she calls me, I’m telling you my heart’s pounding.”
Colorado coach Tad Boyle summed it up well earlier this year: “You live day by day, sometimes hour by hour.”
Villanova and the Wolverines have not been the only ranked programs with multi-week interruptions. In early December, the Buffaloes paused basketball operations after starting the season 2-0. Clemson, which was 9-1 and ranked in the top-25 at the time, had to postpone games against North Carolina and Syracuse due to cases within the Tigers’ program.
“It’s frustrating a little bit, certainly,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said at the time. “More disappointing. … We were coming off a great win, and we were just excited to go to Chapel Hill and play North Carolina. Our kids were really disappointed on Friday when we took them off the court and said, ‘Hey, we can’t go.’
“Guys are playing well and they want to play. When you have rhythm and you’re in a good space, that’s when you want to keep playing. If things aren’t going well, maybe a pause can be good for you. So, this will be a test for us.”
The Tigers lost their first three games upon returning to the court by a combined 72 points.
So far, the way teams have responded to prolonged breaks has proven to be a mixed bag. From the very start though, many coaches, like Wright and Michigan coach Juwan Howard, have emphasized the importance of player safety. Now more than ever, how players fare off the court takes precedence over how they fare on it. That’s just the reality of playing basketball during a pandemic.
“For us, this year, titles and things like that aren’t really going to carry much weight,” Wright said. “We want these guys to stay mentally healthy, physically healthy and get through as many games as they can. … Everybody’s just trying to do their best.”
Barring another stoppage, the Wolverines can return to the court on Feb. 7. In the meantime, Howard will hope his red-hot team can come out unscathed and undeterred on the other end. At the very least, he can look around the country and realize he’s not alone.
“So much of it comes down to what the doctors let them do during quarantine and where your team is,” Wright said. “… Usually it’s all about the team, but this year it’s about each guy individually and where they are.
“I’m sure Juwan knows his guys and is going to do a great job.”
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