Major disruptions to practices, schedules due to COVID-19
Nearly every team is scrambling to put together a season. Can they pull it off?
With less than two weeks before the scheduled start of the new college basketball season, there is still massive uncertainty about the logistics of actually playing the games. In the Mountain West, some teams are progressing as usual, while others are waiting for the green light to return to the practice floor.
Here is a quick update on where every team stands as we near the opening tip of what promises to be strangest college basketball season in memory.
Per the school’s website, all team sports were put on pause as of November 5 due to a surge of cases at the Academy. While this has its most noticeable effect on the Falcons’ football team, this also means that Joe Scott will have to wait for the all-clear before his team can resume practicing.
Director of Athletics Nathan Pine on pressing the pause button:
“We are disappointed to postpone this game, but the health and safety of our cadets, staff and the community continues to be our No. 1 priority at the Academy. Due to the upward trends in our COVID numbers across the campus, we have paused all intercollegiate team activities.”
MW Media days: @AF_MBB A.J. Walker on dealing with Covid-19, "We are just trying to stay ready so we don't have to get ready." Great way to put it.
— Larry Muniz (@HardwoodTalk) November 11, 2020
Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 issues have thrown the Broncos’ schedule into complete disarray. While Boise State has not had to stop practices, they did lose out on a date with Kansas due to cancellations. Still, the team remains fortunate to have kept their operations mostly intact ahead of a potentially huge year.
Head coach Leon Rice on the awe-inspiring talent on his team:
“You walk in the gym and you are like ‘woah, that’s a long, athletic looking team’. Then you watch them go through some stuff and you say, ‘Holy cow, I haven’t seen that here before.’ I’m still kind of adjusting to that. … You can put our so-called five best together and they may lose to our second five. We go pretty deep and the talent – even those young guys – I’ve seen some things talent-wise that I’m really excited about for the future.”
The school had to shut down varsity sports activities during the summer, but without much incident since then, no news is good news for Rams fans. So while many other coaches are fretting over whether they’ll even be able to take the floor, Niko Medved is just trying to manage high expectations.
Head coach Niko Medved on tempering his expectations:
“I think we have guys who really care and want to be really good players and want to be a good team. It’s knowing and seeing what guys were able to do last year. Again, the excitement in practice of the guys’ work ethic and commitment to what we’re doing, all those things. I think we’re really excited, but I think we’re also pretty humble to know we still have quite a ways to go to get where I want to.”
The Bulldogs are set to begin practicing on Sunday or Monday, per Robert Kuwada of The Fresno Bee. Fresno State’s season has already hit one speedbump, with the team being forced into quarantine on October 28 after two members of their program tested positive for COVID-19.
Head coach Justin Hutson on chemistry in the time of COVID:
“They haven’t had a chance to hang out off the floor, because you’re not supposed to hang out in groups. We’re still figuring out who’s going to play, let alone who’s going to jell together … We’re working hard, but chemistry is going to take a while.”
More from Hutson on more testing than practicing:
“The reality of it is, we’ve had more COVID tests since March than we’ve been in the gym. This is maybe our 15th time being in the gym. I know I’ve had that little stick put up my nose way more times than 15.”
Practices have continued as normal, but there have still been disruptions for the Wolf Pack. According to Jim Krajewski of the Reno Gazette-Journal, two scheduled team retreats both had to be canceled. There has also been less contact between players and coaches than would happen in a typical season.
Head coach Steve Alford on persevering through the pandemic:
“Dealing with a lot of the things that young people have to deal with when they leave home, that’s been accelerated with what’s happened with the pandemic. I think our guys are in a good state and in a good frame of mind now. … It’s not going to be an equitable year. We’re not in a normal year, but I really give the coaches of this league credit that they’re thinking not about self, not about career, not about what’s going to happen with NCAA bids, but how can our players get on the court and play games.”
ICYMI: Yesterday Coach Alford and @dezcambridgejr spoke with media on the upcoming season.
— Nevada Basketball (@NevadaHoops) November 12, 2020
Like their Sagebrush State rivals, the Rebels have been able to keep their practices on track as they ramp up for a promising season. With plenty of roster turnover in Year 2 of TJ Otzelberger’s tenure in Las Vegas, that added familiarity will certainly help in what will surely be an unpredictable season.
Head coach TJ Otzelberger on rolling with the punches:
“There’s been so much uncertainty. So the players trying to be adaptable, being willing to pivot each and every day, not knowing what our conference season might look like, when we might have our first game, is there a chance games could get canceled or postponed – these sorts of things. We’ve tried to stay focused on that day, what we need to do to get better – our improvement, our focus on the practice court.”
As if the Lobos didn’t already have enough to worry about due to the restrictions on activities laid down by New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, now the team has to go into a mandatory quarantine after two players tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday. The team had been practicing in a neighboring county as a stopgap measure, but that plan is no longer tenable given the recent uptick of cases there.
Head coach Paul Weir on the latest setbacks to the season:
“When something like this comes along, it feels like you have two arms tied behind your back, so now you are just trying to learn how to kick, and it just comes with the territory right now. I am sure other programs or teams will have to go through similar situations, but we have tried to stay incredibly positive as a team. … As the current health order stands right now, we would not be able to host a game here, and obviously with the travel quarantine coming back into the state becomes an issue, which as you talked about with our football team, has forced them to be pretty creative right now, and I am sure we are going to have to be just as agile as we kind of go forward.”
More from Weir on whether the Lobos’ season might be canceled:
“I don’t believe so, I would not like to think so. Not playing basketball in the state of New Mexico is un-New Mexican. This virus and our society and communities have a lot of things to think about, and we’re all kind of at that mercy. … Even if we had to play tomorrow night and we’ve had, like, a total of one full team practice since last spring, is it worth that? Is it worth saying, ‘You know what, who cares?’ This is about the kids, this is about the student-athletes. We go out and let them play and let them enjoy that experience.”
SAN DIEGO STATE
Though the Aztecs’ program did start slightly later than normal, things are currently on track for Brian Dutcher and San Diego State. But that doesn’t mean everyone is happy. Dutcher, who has consistently displayed a resistance to change, is not a fan of the modified 20-game schedule for Mountain West play.
Head coach Brian Dutcher on the modified schedule:
“I understand the reasoning behind it and the safety precautions, and I’m all for that. At the end of the day, some people are going to have a better schedule than others. We’ll do our best, but this is what it is. It’s COVID-19. We can’t do anything about it.”
More from Dutcher on playing back-to-back games at altitude:
“I’ve been in this league for 21 years. I’ve seen what happens in the second game at altitude. That might put us at a disadvantage, I don’t think there’s any question about that. Nobody will want to hear about it once we play the games. They’ll think it’s an excuse. But having been in the league as long as I have and seen it firsthand, I understand the effects. You’re not falling apart and lying on the floor, but you’re a half-step slow. And if you’re a half-step slow at our level, that’s enough to make a difference.”
SAN JOSE STATE
The Spartans have been dealing with strict COVID-19 protocols in Santa Clara County for some time now, and they have had to get creative in their solutions. At the MW Media Day, head coach Jean Prioleau described how university officials worked with donors to construct a new outdoor court, and also alluded to efforts to bring their program back inside.
Head coach Jean Prioleau on getting back into the gym:
“We’ve been working with our county to figure out how we could get back inside. We had to make sure we wrote up certain protocols that we needed to abide by, and we were able to do that. And now we’re in a situation where we can get in a gym and we’re working hard, and hopefully, we can continue with our work.”
Junior guard Seneca Knight on practicing in the great outdoors:
“It was a dope experience. I loved it. We have a beautiful court, and beautiful background scenery and everything. Just waking up and going over there to shoot. Being a basketball player, you’re just trying to play basketball wherever, whether it’s inside, outside. I also grew up at the park back home, playing basketball out there. So it just brought me back memories of playing basketball when I was younger. It was definitely a fun experience that we all really enjoyed.”
— San Jose State Men’s Basketball (@SanJoseStateMBB) November 13, 2020
They lost out on the Myrtle Beach Invitational event, but there haven’t been any major setbacks to the Aggies’ practice schedule, which allowed for the team to gather for a special experience: a ring ceremony celebrating last season’s MW Tournament title. Despite the disappointment of not getting to play in the NCAA Tournament last year, Craig Smith is looking ahead.
Head coach Craig Smith on bouncing back from a major letdown:
“I felt like we were really in good shape both mentally and physically last year. It was certainly disappointing. … It’s tough to handle when you get that stripped away from you. You go through a mourning stage. But then you flip the script. We were able to have that experience of competing in a conference tournament, of cutting down the nets, of representing one of the best basketball leagues in the country in the Mountain West Conference, and we will always have that moment. That’s the silver lining. Now we move on.”
Wyoming basketball returned to practice after their COVID-19-induced pause earlier this month, per Jeff Linder.
The player who tested positive is still going through protocols, but Linder said "most everybody" is practicing.
— Davis Potter (@DavisEPotter) November 11, 2020
After pressing pause due to a positive test, activities are back on track for Wyoming basketball. However, according to Davis Potter of the Casper Star Tribune, new head coach Jeff Linder is not as optimistic as some that the Cowboys will actually end up playing all 27 games currently listed on their schedule for 2020-21.
Head coach Jeff Linder on concerns over playing a full schedule:
“Your guess is as good as mine as to how it’s all going to play out. The biggest thing with this year is just trying to play as many games as we possibly can. That’s the ultimate goal. How many are we going to play? I have no idea. With the way this thing is kind of evolving right now, it doesn’t look very good for a lot of games. … I thought the first schedule that came out where it was pretty much what they’ve done in the past, having our guys go from here to there on airplanes, I just didn’t see how it was going to work. I think the decision they made to go to two games in one location and having basically five home-and-away series, I just think that gives us a lot better chance to make sure we play as many games as possible.”
Buckle up, folks. This season is going to be a wild one. We will do our best to keep you up to speed on all the changes going on, so be sure to check back and follow @MWCwire on Twitter for all the breaking news.
Andrew Dieckhoff is a USBWA member writing about college basketball for Mountain West Wire of the USA TODAY Sports Media Group. He is also the creator of the Dieckhoff Power Index basketball analytics system and provides analytics coverage for Heat Check CBB. Andrew is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer (China) and a graduate of Portland State University. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.