Detroit's Mike Davis blasts COVID-19 protocols, says Oakland series shouldn't have been played

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit Mercy head men's basketball coach Mike Davis is taking issue with the Horizon League, which not only moved up the Oakland rivalry games to this past weekend with just 72 hours notice, but also had the teams play on despite Davis' COVID-19 concerns.

Last Wednesday, the Horizon League hastily scheduled Detroit Mercy-Oakland after IUPUI had to cancel on the Titans and Northern Kentucky on the Golden Grizzlies. Then, the following day, UIC had to cancel its weekend series with Milwaukee.

UIC had played Oakland the previous weekend, only to later learn one referee for those two games tested positive for COVID-19. That sent Oakland into rapid contact tracing, on Christmas Eve, to secure the Saturday and Sunday games at Detroit Mercy.

Detroit Mercy head coach Mike Davis.

Oakland followed contact-tracing protocols, to the letter of the law, by all accounts, and Davis isn't taking issue with the rival school. He's taking issue with the protocols.

"To put my guys in this situation was really disappointing to me," Davis said following Oakland's 83-80 victory Sunday, completing the Golden Grizzlies' weekend sweep.

"We expressed all of that. I'm responsible for these kids, and for us to be in this situation is unbelievable. This is life or death."

The Horizon League, with its Return to Safe Play guidelines recommended by a committee made up of doctors and trainers, lets each of the school's 12 member institutions determine if they are cleared to play, based on state and local guidelines.

In Michigan, health officials recommend a 14-day quarantine for anyone who comes in close contact with an infected individual, with the quarantine able to be dropped to 10 days if there are no symptoms to that point.

Michigan defines close contact as being within 6 feet of an infected individual for 15 minutes over a 24-hour period.

So Oakland officials, including doctors, had to spend Christmas Eve watching game film from the two games at UIC, and observe which players had been in close contact with the referee. Oakland first narrowed its observation list to players who had played at least 15 minutes over the two games, and then narrowed the list further to players who hadn't already contracted COVID-19. More than half of Oakland's roster already has had it.

The closest any Oakland player came to being around the infected referee for 15 minutes was star guard Rashad Williams, and that was less than 5 minutes. No additional Oakland players or coaches tested positive in the leadup to this weekend's games, while UIC's shutdown was, in part, because of a coach who did test positive.

"All of our teams in the Horizon League have followed our contact-tracing protocols to a T up to this point in the season," commissioner Jonathan B. LeCrone said.

To play games this season, the Horizon League is requiring a team to have seven healthy and available players. Oakland had nine players and five coaches test positive before the season, leading to a two-week shutdown before its season-opening multi-team event at Xavier. It was fully healthy for Saturday and Sunday's games at Detroit Mercy, with the exception of guard Blake Lampman, out with a thigh injury.

Oakland sent word to the Horizon League, and Detroit Mercy.

But it didn't settle the nerves of Davis, whose program missed its season-opening MTE at Kentucky because a staff member tested positive but otherwise hasn't had any COVID-19 cases.

That led to some phone calls on game day Saturday, hours before tipoff at Calihan Hall. LeCrone talked to athletic director Robert Vowels, and deputy commissioner Julie Roe Lach was on the phone with Davis, and eventually they both were on the phone with Vowels. While the players waited word — Davis said players didn't think they'd be playing — league officials explained to Vowels that Oakland was cleared to play, and that the weekend games had to be played or Detroit Mercy would be subject to forfeit. Vowels took a bit to think it over, and then called back and said the Titans would play.

Vowels declined to be interviewed, but he issued a statement to The News through a program spokesman.

The statement read: "We have been in contact with the Horizon League office about the health and safety of playing these games this weekend and we will continue to monitor the scenarios throughout this year when the schedule will have to be adjusted due to other teams testing positive or being in quarantine."

The Horizon League set up a unique conference schedule this season, with back-to-back games against the same opponent at a single site. Playing those games — Saturdays and Sundays so far, Fridays and Sundays later — as such allows the league five days of testing between games (Division I student-athletes in Michigan are tested at least six days a week, per state rules) and needed flexibility if the schedule needs to be altered, as it was this past weekend.

With the back-to-backs, the league also is using the same officiating crew for the two weekend games, making them, essentially, a part of the quasi-bubble. This season, officials have noticeably been keeping their distance more than usual, from players and coaches. But Davis believes the risk is there, through touch. Referees mouths touch their whistles, which are touched by their fingers, which touch the basketballs.

"Every team that gets it, one person gets it, they shut them down for 14 days. An official in the game ...," said Davis, who also was irritated that Detroit Mercy wasn't told about the official's status from UIC or the Horizon League, but rather second-hand. (LeCrone wouldn't comment on that, but said the teams are urged to do the communicating.)

"I feel really awful and bad for putting my guys in this situation. Really bad."

Oakland won, 77-75 in overtime, on Saturday, and 83-80 on Sunday, both on last-second shots. The teams are tentatively scheduled to play two more times, Jan. 22-23, at the O'Rena in Rochester, unless the Horizon League can find suitable substitutions for both teams, based on how schedules and COVID situations shake out in the interim.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984