At 9:01 p.m. on Friday night, Chaundee Brown stood near halfcourt, dribbling out the waning seconds of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s decisive victory over Purdue in West Lafayette. His teammates danced on the sidelines behind him, serenading themselves with a chorus of cheers and high-fives. The final buzzer blared. Players and coaches bounced diagonally across the court, faces clad in smiles and disappeared one-by-one up the tunnel.
We don’t know when we’ll see them again.
Saturday, news broke that all Michigan athletic teams would enter a two-week pause, beginning on Jan. 24, due to an influx of positive cases of the novel COVID-19 B.1.1.7 variant amongst several Michigan programs. At a minimum, the men’s basketball team will miss four games — against Penn State, Indiana, Northwestern and Michigan State. It could miss more.
“We all just tell each other you gotta be grateful for every game we play because you never know, the next game can get canceled,” senior forward Isaiah Livers said on Dec. 9, following Michigan’s win over Toledo. “Last year, the tournament stuff got taken away from us, so we just try to be grateful for each day. Be blessed, wake up, be excited to come to practice, be excited to see your brothers because that can all go away with three or four tests.”
The 2020-21 college basketball season was always going to be like this. Making it through the schedule unscathed, with COVID-19 continuing to ravage the nation, would have required a near-miracle.
Michigan now becomes the fourth Big Ten team to go on an extended pause, joining Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan State. Penn State went 18 days between games. Nebraska has been on hiatus since Jan. 10; Michigan State last played Jan. 8.
Michigan’s situation is unique. As of Saturday, the men’s basketball team didn’t have any active COVID-19 cases, according to David Jesse of the Detroit Free Press. Its pause is entirely preemptive, indicative of heightened concern over the novel B.1.1.7 strain, which is more contagious than other variants of the virus.
“Health is always number one with me,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said on Dec. 9. “Basketball is last. And I’m speaking health as well as mental health. … Our guys are doing a phenomenal job of doing whatever they can — wearing their masks, washing their hands, staying away from social gatherings. They want to play basketball. They wanted to have a season.”
In a best-case scenario, the Wolverines will return for their scheduled Feb. 11 contest with Illinois. Should that occur, 20 days will have passed since Michigan last played a game. The earliest the team could even return to the court for practice is Feb. 7.
The Wolverines previously endured a 12-day scheduling break between games in December, making a prolonged absence not entirely unprecedented. Still, unprecedented or not, a hiatus creates a new set of problems for a team that hasn’t looked like it had many.
“When you play a lot of games in a row, I feel like you kinda get into it a little bit,” sophomore forward Franz Wagner said on Dec. 23. “The practices before the games, the way you prepare. And now we didn’t have that playing rhythm … that’s the difficulty, maybe at the start of the game we’ll see that, maybe not. But you kinda get out of your rhythm if you don’t play for a couple days.”
Again, this break is markedly different and all the more daunting. All Michigan athletic programs, men’s basketball including, are abiding to a strict quarantine: No drills, no weight room sessions, no scrimmages.
The pause occurs at an inopportune time for the Wolverines, who climbed to No. 4 in the nation in the most recent AP Poll. They sit alone atop the Big Ten — 1.5 games ahead of Iowa — and have obliterated their opponents, registering double-digit victories in seven of their last eight games. A conference title is not outside the realm of possibility, nor is a long run in the NCAA Tournament, provided it happens.
Michigan has operated with an unspoken sense of urgency this season, COVID aside. Five of the eight prominent rotation players are seniors. Additionally, Wagner seems a good bet to enter the NBA Draft come May. This season posed as a final hurrah for a group largely in the twilight of their collegiate careers, a chance to atone for the crushing cancellations that truncated last season.
COVID-19 always ran opposite to those plans, ominously looming as a threat to upend them. Now, in the heart of the season, it has.
Powerless, all Michigan can do is wait.
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