'Extremely concerned': UM hoops cautious as coronavirus fears continue disrupting sports world

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Michigan coach Juwan Howard admitted he initially thought the media coverage and reaction to the coronavirus outbreak was overblown.

He changed his stance once he found out the Ivy League on Tuesday canceled its conference basketball tournaments and professional sports leagues, such as the NBA, NHL and MLB, have already started taking preventative measures to protect their players by limiting media access.

Michigan head coach Juwan Howard.

“Everyone has been extremely concerned,” Howard said Tuesday. “I am going to communicate to our team that our health is the most important thing. We will sit down with our medical staff and see what's the best way to move forward with preventing anyone from getting sick.”

Michigan is set to travel to Indianapolis for the Big Ten tournament and will open play against Rutgers at noon Thursday. As of Tuesday, the event at Bankers Life Fieldhouse is scheduled to go on as planned, with fans in the stands and media in the locker rooms.

While some of that could change before the men’s conference tournament begins on Wednesday night, the virus, also known as COVID-19, has been a topic of discussion among Michigan’s players.

Senior center Jon Teske said the whole team has taken a cautious approach, especially with students returning to campus this week from spring break.

Several Wolverines said they’re taking precautions by washing their hands more than usual, using hand sanitizer regularly and watching what they touch when out in public.

"We're trying to be careful,” Teske said. “Just being cautious of what you're doing and what you're doing with your hands.”

Michigan players routinely interact with fans before games, whether it’s slapping hands as they run out the tunnel or stopping to sign an autograph and take a picture. Senior guard Zavier Simpson said he will adjust how he interacts with others.

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"I'm definitely going to keep my distance not just from fans, but from a lot of people as far as the touching process,” Simpson said. “I'm obviously not a doctor. I'm not sure who has it or who can identify who has it or anything of that matter. But just to be on the safe side, I prefer to keep germs to everyone else. … Hopefully fans don't take it as a negative if I happen to give them a fist (bump) instead of a high-five.”

The growing coronavirus concerns have affected sports across the world. In Europe, soccer teams have been playing matches without fans. In the United States, spectators were barred from attending Division III men’s basketball tournament games last week at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

The health scare has also led to no shortage of preventative measures. The Big 12 and SEC announced they will be implementing special health precautions at their conference basketball tournaments. The Chicago Tribune reported last week the Big Ten Network will not be sending its studio team to Indianapolis for the men's conference tournament. Instead, the network will broadcast its pregame, halftime and postgame programs from its Chicago headquarters as a precautionary move.

On Tuesday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine recommended no spectators be allowed at any indoor sporting event in his state. The NCAA Tournament’s First Four games are to be held in Dayton with Cleveland set to host first- and second-round contests.

The most recent NCAA Tournament bracket projections by CBS Sports and ESPN both have Michigan State playing in Cleveland.

“I feel bad for anybody that is gotten the virus and I feel bad for the people that are trying to figure this out,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “But I don't I don't know where it's heading. It seems like it's getting to a drastic state right now. They're canceling some of these things and I'll just act accordingly.”

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.

The Mid-American Conference and Big West Conference also announced on Tuesday their basketball tournaments in Cleveland and in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, respectively, will take place without fans this week to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

More: CMU, EMU, WMU women will play MAC tournament with no fans

It's possible NCAA Tournament games could follow suit and be played in empty arenas. The NCAA released a statement on Tuesday saying in part it "will make decisions in the coming days" for its tournaments and events.

Howard said he hadn’t given the possibility of playing spectator-free games any thought, while Teske and freshman wing Franz Wagner both noted it would be "different."

Simpson said it would be "a little bit disappointing” if he had to play the final games of his career without a typical postseason atmosphere.

“But at the same time if it's best for my health and not just for myself but for my teammates and other people who are surrounded by the event, I think that's maybe the best decision,” Simpson said.

Regardless, the Wolverines aren’t looking that far ahead just yet. With the Big Ten tournament up first, they’re keeping their focus on themselves, on what they can control and on their upcoming game with Rutgers.

“I’m just sending prayers out to those families and the world as far as the coronavirus that's spreading,” Simpson said. “Hopefully it can stop spreading so the basketball world can get back to its norm. It has definitely affected a lot of people.”

Big Ten tournament

Here is the schedule for the 2020 Big Ten men's basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. All games on BTN unless noted.


►No. 12 Minnesota vs. No. 13 Northwestern, 6

►No. 11 Indiana vs. No. 14 Nebraska, 8:30


►No. 8 Rutgers vs. No. 9 Michigan, noon

►No. 5 Iowa vs. Minnesota-Northwestern winner, 2:30

►No. 7 Ohio State vs. No. 10 Purdue, 6:30

►No. 6 Penn State vs. Indiana-Nebraska winner, 9


►No. 1 Wisconsin vs. Rutgers-Michigan winner, noon

►No. 4 Illinois vs. Iowa-Minnesota/Northwestern winner, 2:30

►No. 2 Michigan State vs. Ohio State-Purdue winner, 6:30

►No. 3 Maryland vs. Penn State-Indiana/Nebraska winner, 9


►Semifinals, 1 and 3:30 (CBS)


►Final, 3:30 (CBS)


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins