Wolverines eager to gear up with hopes of a college basketball season
Through an offseason filled with swirling questions and a haze of uncertainty, a beacon of light recently emerged — a Nov. 25 start date.
When the NCAA provided that critical piece of clarity last month and announced the upcoming 2020-21 season would only be pushed back 15 days than originally scheduled because of the coronavirus pandemic, the college basketball world let out a collective sigh of relief.
But Michigan coach Juwan Howard — whose first season ended prematurely at the onset of the health crisis — is cautiously optimistic as he continues to navigate his team through these trying times.
"It's been a lot of unknowns, been a lot of learning throughout the process of what the new normal is going to look like,” Howard said on a Zoom call with reporters this week.
“At the end of the day, we’re still trying to keep forging ahead and getting our guys ready to have, God willing, a college season.”
Howard’s comments came seven months after he last spoke to local media in late March — roughly two weeks after the Wolverines and many college basketball teams across the nation saw the 2019-20 campaign come to an abrupt close.
In the months since then — with everyone back home and scattered across the country — the coaching staff and players stayed connected through phone calls and FaceTime. There were also team meetings on Zoom that covered various topics, like culture building, leadership, social injustice, staying mentally sharp and areas where the team can improve.
Then by the time mid-June rolled around, players were allowed to start returning to campus and eventually participate in voluntary workouts with limited student-athletes involved.
“It's been great to get the guys in the gym. They've been excited,” said Howard, who added the staff has been equally energetic and enthusiastic. “They're looking forward to the opportunity of getting better. We as a staff, it's been fun seeing our guys, being able to touch them.
“We’re making sure we're practicing every way possible to keep our guys safe and healthy for what the state of Michigan has mandated as well as the University of Michigan. We've pivoted and making sure we are doing the right thing possible by keeping everyone safe. While that process has gone on, we've been fortunate enough to get some activity in the gym. The amount of time that we've used, we try to make sure we utilize that time where it's being useful, everything is done with a purpose."
Sophomore wing Franz Wagner said wearing masks and practicing with all the COVID-19 protocols has been an adjustment for everyone involved.
At first, only a couple of people were allowed in the gym at Crisler Center at a time for individual drills. But as the state has continued to reopen and gathering limits have eased, Wagner said the whole team has been able to get together to go over their offensive and defensive schemes.
“It was definitely frustrating at the start knowing that everybody was here ready to go but we couldn't all quite work together,” Wagner said in an interview with Big Ten Network last week.
The Wolverines will soon get to ramp things up when full team practices officially start on Wednesday, six weeks before the regular season is set to tip off.
“I think for everybody involved, now after this long time with all this uncertainty if we're going to have a season or not, now we're all motivated and ready to go,” Wagner said. “I think having that goal in mind, Nov. 25, I think it's a lot easier to go to practice every day and be motivated every day to go to work and work hard to try to get better.”
But, as Howard noted, there’s still plenty of unknowns and a lot of moving parts. For starters, the Big Ten has yet to finalize the number of league contests that will be played — whether it’ll remain at 20 or increase to 22 or 24 — and it remains to be seen if there will even be a nonconference slate.
Despite the uncertain schedule, Howard stressed the health and safety of his team comes before any games are played. The NCAA released its guidelines for college basketball last month, recommending COVID-19 testing three times per week on nonconsecutive days throughout the season. Last week, the Big Ten announced a partnership with Quidel Corporation and Biodesix to provide and distribute daily rapid tests.
While college athletes won’t be in a controlled environment like the pros in the NHL and NBA, the onus will be on players to limit their interactions and create their own personal bubbles on campus.
“Obviously it's going to be tough and it's going to mentally draining that you can't see as many people as normally you will in a college year, in a college semester,” Wagner said. “I think that's one thing that it comes down to is if you really want to win, if you really want to be a good team, you're going to have to make those sacrifices this year.
“It's not going to be easy, but I definitely think there's a way to make it work. I'm confident in our guys that we realize the responsibility that we have not just for us but for the rest of the team, too. I know everybody on our team wants to play and wants to have a good season, so we've got to make those sacrifices.”
Especially after how last season ended, after wading through an offseason that has seemingly dragged on for eternity and after finally starting to see a new year appear on the horizon.
"We have a very jovial, excited group that's looking forward to playing this season,” Howard said. “I'm praying that we all have a season so that we can get a chance to keep working and grinding and develop a team that gives this university something to be proud of.”