For the Michigan men’s basketball team, the COVID-19 pandemic and everything that’s accompanied it from an athletic perspective — namely, the cancellation of postseason tournaments, long periods of self-isolation, the inability to practice or workout as a team, frequent testing and the uncertainty surrounding the start of a new season — has been inconvenient at best and at times, incredibly daunting.
As Michigan’s sophomore forward Franz Wagner summed it up: “It was really weird. I didn’t see a lot of people. … Just seeing the three, four people every day. I love my family, but I think everybody agrees, you gotta see somebody else. It was definitely a frustrating transition with the season cut short.”
The past few months have been unlike any other. It’s been different. The next few months will be different. The only thing that’s certain is uncertainty.
“It’s been a lot of unknowns,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “It’s been a lot of learning throughout the process, learning what the ‘new’ is gonna look like. At the end of the day, you still try to keep forging ahead.”
The unprecedented nature of the pandemic has been a common refrain. It’s forced all facets of society to change, pause and in some cases stop altogether — college athletics being one of them.
But, as much as the pandemic has taken away from sports, and specifically from college basketball programs like Michigan, the Wolverines have also found a silver lining through it all.
“I think it’s been a time of reflection and an opportunity for a reset,” assistant coach Saddi Washington said. “I say that both personally and professionally because I think what it’s allowed everybody to do is realign their priorities and perspective in life based on what we’ve had to go through and what we’ve had to go without that we thought was important. We’ve learned to be much more efficient with our time. I think it’s also been an opportunity to reset some things in life or in our program.”
From a basketball standpoint, it was difficult at first for some players to sharpen their game during quarantine. The resources and situation of a player’s hometown determined the extent to which they could play. Senior walk-on guard Rico Ozuna-Harrison had to revert to running and boxing in order to stay in shape since his native city, Detroit, closed all outdoor parks and removed the basketball rims from the courts. Others, like senior guard Eli Brooks, at least had access to a friend’s gym and could shoot around.
According to Washington, though, the imperfect conditions may have been a blessing in disguise.
“I think also that once something is taken away or paused for a while, that’s when you get this new love for the game again,” he said. “It challenged our guys to really re-evaluate, you know, ‘How much do I really love this game? Because right now, I can’t even get in the gym, so I gotta find a park outside somewhere, or I have to do ball-handling, push-ups and sit-ups and a lot of stuff at home.’
“The message to our guys, though, was, ‘Hard work is never wasted work.’ It’s still on us to remain diligent in terms of working out and staying ready. … Those are all things we can control.”
When many of the players returned to campus in June, they still had to abide by Michigan state regulations limiting the size of group activities. This meant working out in small groups and focusing on their conditioning and skill development.
“That’s at the core of who we are, we’re a skill-developing program and we always have been,” Washington said. “It allowed us to really focus in and hone in on specific parts of guys’ games and really grow those areas.”
Added Brooks: “We’re pushing harder than we ever had before, like with conditioning and that aspect of getting people in shape quicker. It’s been good to be able to slow down and do the development stage instead of rushing into plays and stuff — being able to really see the bigger picture.”
As much as the Wolverines are looking forward to organized, team-wide practices commencing this week, the unique and individualized workouts had their advantages.
“There’s gonna be a lot more five on five (with practice starting),” senior forward Isaiah Livers said. “Other than that, I feel like a lot of guys, especially the young ones, are more locked in than I thought they were. … I feel like everybody’s adjusting very well and I hope it trends that way.”
As Washington suggested, quarantine also gave the team a chance to focus on their well-being off the court as well. Amid the pandemic and the ongoing occurrences of racial injustice, Howard and the coaching staff encouraged their players to speak their minds during team meetings. As a result, Michigan established its culture and incorporated new additions earlier than ever before — even if it was over Zoom.
“This summer opened up some space for us to really have some honest conversations about what’s really going on in the world that normally, within our athletic bubbles, may go off of our radar,” Washington said. “Our team really dialed into the issues, took it to heart and allowed it to bring us closer together. Through adversity you really get to see who are the people in your corner and I feel like our guys understand that at a higher level now.”
The events of the last few months have upended our sense of normalcy as a nation. For Michigan’s players and coaches, this meant an abrupt ending to last season and time spent away from the game they love.
But these hard times may not have been for nothing.
“I’m just excited, and I think our guys are just excited to play again,” Washington said. “Whatever it’s gonna look like, it will look like, but to have that abrupt end to last season without any closure really gives us a newfound motivation to go out there and take nothing for granted.”
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