Despite COVID-19 case, Wolverines 'felt comfortable' playing against Boilermakers

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Michigan’s Isaiah Livers admitted he was initially uneasy heading into Friday’s contest at Purdue.

But it had nothing to do with jitters or nerves about how he’d perform. Rather, it had everything to do with a positive COVID-19 test within the Boilermakers program this week and whether it’d be safe to play.

The Wolverines considered not making the trip to West Lafayette. But ultimately, the game went on as scheduled — Michigan won, 70-53 — and Purdue’s transparency over the previous 24 hours was a big reason why.

According to Michigan coach Juwan Howard, he was alerted by Purdue on Thursday that a player had tested positive. That player — starting guard Sasha Stefanovic — wasn’t revealed by the Boilermakers until roughly two hours before tip-off.

Following the game, Purdue coach Matt Painter explained Stefanovic felt fine before, during and after his team’s win at Ohio State on Tuesday night. It wasn’t until Wednesday morning Stefanovic started to feel symptoms, despite testing negative twice, and was told to quarantine in his room.

Michigan guard Eli Brooks (55) drives on Purdue guard Eric Hunter Jr. (2) during the first half.

On Thursday, Stefanovic tested positive on both the antigen test and PCR test. Painter notified Ohio State and Michigan and told Howard to reach out to him with any questions or concerns.

At Michigan's request, Purdue’s entire team took a PCR test, even though nobody else had a positive antigen test. All came back negative.

“We honored that, and I think that was a good move,” Painter said.

Painter added Purdue and its medical staff was comfortable proceeding with the game due to the team’s travel protocols to and from Ohio State — masks worn at all times, no eating or drinking allowed — as well as the fact Stefanovic had no contact with anyone after being symptomatic.

Before tip-off, Purdue’s sports information director Chris Forman even tweeted: “We feel VERY confident in our protocols.”

Yet, the decision to play or not still rested in Michigan’s hands.

"If we're fine with it and it fits the protocol, but Michigan still is a little leery and they say they don't want to do it, we've got to respect them also," Painter said. “We do have that gentleman's agreement in our league to where if somebody makes a decision even though it might not be as consistent as somebody else's decision, it's still theirs.

"Respect that and don't go back on anybody for that because everybody is in their own situation, in their own state, in their own county with their own institution."

It wasn’t a call Howard made on his own. Howard said he spoke to every player and program staff member to get their thoughts before the team bussed to West Lafayette after Thursday’s practice.

“They all have a voice when it comes to a serious situation like this,” Howard said. “Everyone felt comfortable with coming here and playing.”

Michigan’s players were wary at first, but they felt the risk was minimal after learning about Purdue’s protocols and practices.

“They were transparent,” senior guard Eli Brooks said. “Everything that we needed to know, we knew. That allowed me to make my decision and everybody else to make their decision. That's all you can ask because we're playing in a time that's uncertain and when people are telling the truth, that's the best way to do it. That (transparency) goes a long way.”

Livers echoed Brooks and appreciated how direct Painter and Purdue were throughout the process.

“At first, there was a lot of us, and I'll talk about me, I was opposed to (playing),” Livers said. “But once I found out they were all going to get PCR (tests) after and it was only one guy and he's been quarantined, then I was like, ‘OK, we can work with this.’

“We weren't going to bus down here or come down here if they weren't being totally honest and straight up with us.”

In the end, Michigan felt comfortable making the trip despite the positive case that put more than just the game at risk.

“My heart went out to the Purdue program and more importantly to that player,” Howard said. “His health and safety is always No. 1.

“COVID is real. I lost a family member to COVID. It's not easy. A kid like that, a student-athlete, loves playing basketball and now having to deal with this, I just hope he gets back healthy."

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins