UM men's, women's hoops finding ways to stay connected during shutdown

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
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When the University of Michigan announced Jan. 23 the entire athletic department would shut down for two weeks, women’s basketball coach Kim Barnes Arico said her players had one question.

Why?

“It's been challenging,” Barnes Arico said on Monday’s “Inside Michigan Basketball” radio show. “Our players felt that they have done everything they could to be in a great position (to play). We've been testing every day since October. We've been keeping our distance and wearing our masks.

“That doesn't mean that we haven't had COVID come through our program, but we really emphasize doing the right thing. Our kids have sacrificed so much with not going home and staying here over break that it's been really tough.”

Kim Barnes Arico's team got off to a program-best 10-0 start this season.

The decision was made following recommendations from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services after there were confirmed cases of the B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19, which transmits more easily, from numerous individuals across different  teams.

All athletic activities have been paused — games, practices and individual training sessions — and all student-athletes, coaches and team staff have been required to quarantine for 14 days, a span that goes until Sunday.

Athletic director Warde Manuel, appearing on the “In the Trenches” podcast, said the players and coaches were shocked and upset by the decision. There was also some confusion and frustration, leading to a dispute over whether the shutdown was a mandate or a suggestion from the MDHHS.

A group of student-athletes even started an online petition to lift the pause and argued decisions should’ve been made on a team-by-team basis.

As Barnes Arico pointed out, the women’s basketball team dealt with COVID-19-related issues in December but have had no problems since then. The men’s basketball team, according to coach Juwan Howard, has had only one positive test since the players arrived on campus in mid-June. That happened in August when the team wasn’t even practicing.

More: UM's Hunter Dickinson, Naz Hillmon earn spots on Wooden Award watch lists

Yet, that didn’t matter as the two basketball teams that were rolling and following protocols now must wait to get back on the court. And that’s something that has men’s assistant coach Phil Martelli concerned, particularly when it comes to his players’ mental health.

“It's unnerving to think of young guys sitting in a room, they finish their classes online and then they're used to being in the facility at 1:30 p.m. They have a rhythm to their day,” Martelli said on Monday's radio show. “People talk about when routines are broken, that's when people's spirits can be broken. That's an issue.

“Everybody gave up Christmas and sacrificed a lot, and only recently we’ve got to have families in the (Crisler Center) stands. It's a little bit numbing when you think about I have no control over this (virus). No individual player or member of our program has control over this.”

Men's assistant coach Phil Martelli

Barnes Arico said the first 24 hours after the pause was put in place were the hardest and her players were “pretty emotional” about it. But eventually everyone regrouped, refocused and approached the layoff as their own NBA All-Star break.

Barnes Arico said she and her staff brainstormed, gathered ideas, devised a plan and brought back Zooms — not by popular demand — to get through the hiatus. So far, they've devoted a day to each position. Another day was spent talking about how to achieve short-term and long-term goals. They've also watched Big Ten games and challenged players to break down how they’d approach their individual matchup on offense and defense.

More: UM's Howard, Oakland's Kampe join effort to restart high school basketball

Similarly, the men’s team has found ways to stay connected and engaged. Martelli said he spent time watching film with the big men over Zoom and going over reads out of double-teams. Last week, Howard had author Jon Gordon, who focuses on topics about leadership and teamwork, speak to his players. There has also been a team-wide video challenge to film and send in workouts they’ve been doing to stay in shape.

Barnes Arico added she isn't too worried about her team’s conditioning slipping because she has an experienced and disciplined bunch, even though the weather hasn’t been fully cooperating for the players to run and work on their ball-handling outdoors. Still, they’ve been trying to make the most of their sidelined situations.

“For me, personally, it's given myself a little bit of a window to really analyze the film, analyze our team and analyze our opponents moving forward to figure out how can we be a better team come February and, most importantly, come March,” Barnes Arico said.

Both basketball teams sit near the top of the Big Ten standings and are ranked in the top 15. The No. 13 women’s squad (10-1, 5-1) is one of two conference teams with one loss in league play, while the No. 4 men’s squad (13-1, 8-1) is alone in first place.

The department-wide shutdown postponed six games for the women and four games for the men. Both teams are scheduled to play again on Feb. 11 and it’s unclear how the Big Ten will handle their schedules to make up those contests moving forward.

Manuel said a plan is in place for each sport to get back and train before returning to competition. When that happens, Martelli hopes the Wolverines will be able to pick up where they left off.

“My prayer is always that when we come back — not if we come back, but when we come back — that we can get that cohesiveness going right away because it's been special,” Martelli said. “I hope for the fan base that it's provided an uplifting moment to watch these guys play basketball because it is a joy to be with them.”

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins

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