State hoops: Players can't let guard down; one positive COVID-19 test, and 'it's over'

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

We're all nearing one full year of varying levels of lockdown amid the pandemic. It's easy to get COVID-19 fatigue, and lackadaisical in our daily precautions.

College athletes don't have that option — especially right now for college basketball players.

Oakland's Daniel Oladapo, Jalen Moore and Kevin Kangu defend against Cleveland State's Torrey Patton in the second half.

The postseason starts Thursday with the Horizon League tournament, with the Mid-American Conference, the Big Ten and others to soon follow. One slipup now, and the ramifications could be significant. A team's season could be finished with just one positive test.

"We had a meeting at 3 in the morning when we got back (from Milwaukee) and that was what the whole meeting was about," said Oakland coach Greg Kampe, whose team has a first-round bye and will play Tuesday at home against an unknown opponent.

"It's spring break, so nobody's around, but don't go into restaurants, wear a mask, stay away from people. And stay socially distanced from females — though that wasn't quite the terminology I used.

"We talked all about that. We're gonna know in 16 days (from the season finale to the Horizon League final) if we're in the NCAA Tournament or not. You have 16 days to be the most diligent you can be."

Oakland (11-17, 10-10) did the unthinkable this season, playing its entire regular-season schedule. It only had one series called off, when Northern Kentucky couldn't play, but that series was quickly replaced with two additional games with Detroit Mercy, which also had an opponent unavailable that same weekend.

The Golden Grizzlies had a COVID-19 outbreak before the season, affecting the men's and women's programs, with 20 people testing positive, including head coaches Kampe and Jeff Tungate.

They haven't had a positive test for a player since, though all the players who tested positive before the season now are susceptible again, with the believed 90 days of immunity having expired.

Detroit Mercy, meanwhile, said it hasn't had a single player test positive this season, though it did miss several games, including a multi-team event (MTE) at Kentucky to start the regular season because a staff member tested positive, and two series in-season, one for "mental-health" reasons and another because a support staff member tested positive.

"It's all about the trust and commitment, that's what goes on with all the teams," Detroit Mercy coach Mike Davis said. "We've been really good here, followed the protocols. Our people have done a great job staying on top of everybody during this crazy time."

Subscribers: Detroit Mercy's Mike Davis blasts Horizon's seed formula: They gave us 4 more losses

But there's definitely added emphasis right now for Detroit Mercy (11-9, 10-6), which opens the tournament Thursday at home against Robert Morris.

"Yeah," said Davis, "because what happens if you test positive is the season's over. It's over."

For months and months, college athletes have been countless sacrifices to be able to play their sports.

At Detroit Mercy and Oakland and schools around the country, the message is clear — we're near the finish line, don't let your guard down now.

At Oakland, players woke up before the sun had risen to be tested at 7:30 a.m., six days a week. They often had their meals delivered. For that shutdown before the season, they couldn't leave their dorms or apartments, and all meals were delivered, with no menu. You ate what you got.

More: Back in the postseason, Detroit Mercy a scary opponent, even for a No. 5 seed

Kampe said school and athletic officials are discussing additional precautions with the postseason here, like whether to hold small-segment practices rather than typical five-on-fives, and whether to put all the players up at area hotels. "No stoned left unturned," Kampe said. Medical opinions will determine the decision, with cost an important factor, too.

He's anxiously awaiting Thursday's team test results, as that will mark five days since the team got off the bus following the games at Milwaukee. Though, really, every time results are coming, Kampe is sweating.

"I worry every day," Kampe said. "Whenever the text comes from the trainer, I see his name on my phone, I get a pit in my stomach. He texted me (the other day) at 3 o'clock, to tell me he was taking Jalen (Moore) to have his ribs X-rayed. All I saw was his name on my phone, and I'm like, 'Oh no.' I'm always thinking there's a positive test.

"(The players) have just been diligent and understood the importance of wearing masks in public and not putting themselves in a position at parties and other things that college kids do. The praise should be heaped on them and our administration, the people at Oakland who preached it.

"The kids bought into that. They bought into being able to play."

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Hot seats?

There were very few basketball coach firings last offseason, given it was the early stages of the pandemic, and university's and athletic department's finances were uncertain.

There is likely to be a whole lot more movement this time around, and it's worth keeping an eye on two programs in Michigan.

At Eastern Michigan (4-10), which finally is back playing again after a three-plus-week program shutdown, Rob Murphy is in the last year of his contract. It's his 10th year as head coach, the Eagles haven't had a winning season in the last three years, and haven't won a MAC Division title since his first year. Eastern has lost six consecutive games, and hasn't beaten a Division I team since Jan. 9.

At Central Michigan (6-13), which returned to the court Tuesday night with nine available players after a string of four COVID-19 cancellations, Keno Davis is in his ninth season, and like Murphy at Eastern, he hasn't taken his team to the NCAA Tournament. His Chippewas haven't beaten a Division I foe besides Eastern since Dec. 12. He signed an extension in 2019 that, yes, technically runs through 2024, but a big part of that extension was a lesser buyout. If he's fired, the university's payout is $500,000, and drops by $100,000 each year through the end of the deal. Central Michigan has a new athletic director, Amy Folan.

Western Michigan cut ties with longtime coach Steve Hawkins early last March, just before the severity of the pandemic and its effect on college athletics was coming into focus. That led to an external hiring freeze at Western, and eventually led to Hawkins' assistant, Clayton Bates, getting the job. Bates' team is 4-13 sandwiched around multiple program pauses, though two of those wins were against Central Michigan.

The state's three Mid-American Conference teams are a combined 14-36, and are 279th (Western), 312th (Central) and 325th (Eastern) in the NET rankings.

Slam dunks

►The Horizon was able to play 91% of its men's and women's conference schedule this season. Both Oakland teams played their entire 20-game schedules.

"That's well above the national average, I'm pretty sure," first-year Horizon League commissioner Julie Roe Lach said. "That just goes back to flexibility. It wasn't easy getting a call on Wednesday that the team you were gonna play two days later is no longer available. But (coaches and athletic directors) were quick to pivot. I really applaud their efforts." 

►Michigan State men have won two straight, against Indiana and No. 5 Illinois, but still are a ways from even being back on the NCAA Tournament bubble. That 22-year NCAA streak still is likely about to end.

To put that streak in perspective, during the run, which dates to the 1998 NCAA Tournament, Michigan's other six Division I programs have made a combined 21 NCAAs. That's 10 for Michigan, three each for Oakland, Detroit Mercy and Western Michigan, and one each for Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan.

►The Michigan women (13-2) still are No. 14 in the NET rankings, and if the Wolverines keep winning, they should get a top-16 seed for the NCAA Tournament, regardless what the early projections said. Michigan's only losses are to Indiana and Ohio State, and it came back and beat Ohio State on Sunday.

►Michigan actually went 2-0 against Ohio State on Sunday, with the No. 3 men beating No. 4 Ohio State in what many pundits have since called the best college basketball game of the season.

State power rankings

MEN

1. Michigan (16-1)

2. Michigan State (12-9)

3. Detroit Mercy (11-9)

4. Oakland (10-17)

5. Western Michigan (4-13)

6. Central Michigan (6-13)

7. Eastern Michigan (4-10)

WOMEN

1. Michigan (13-2)

2. Michigan State (12-6)

3. Central Michigan (13-7)

4. Oakland (12-11)

5. Eastern Michigan (10-6)

6. Western Michigan (4-13)

7. Detroit Mercy (1-13)

Games of the week

MEN

►Iowa at Michigan, 7 Thursday (ESPN)

►Robert Morris at Detroit Mercy, Horizon League tournament, 7 Thursday (ESPN+)

►Ohio State at Michigan State, 9 Thursday (ESPN)

►Michigan at Indiana, noon Saturday (Fox)

►Michigan State at Maryland, 2 Sunday (CBS)

WOMEN

►Michigan at Iowa, 4:30 Thursday (BTN)

►Michigan State at Nebraska, 2 Saturday (BTN)

►Central Michigan at Eastern Michigan, 6:30 Saturday (ESPN+)

►Michigan at Minnesota, 2:30 Sunday (BTN)

►IUPUI at Oakland, Horizon League tournament, 3 Tuesday (ESPN+)

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984