For Michigan basketball, COVID issues prove 'frustrating for everyone'

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

As a growing number of college basketball teams across the country have had their seasons put on hold due to COVID-19, Michigan coach Juwan Howard hoped to avoid a similar fate.

It didn’t happen, as the Wolverines had their own outbreak and saw two marquee home games against top-10 teams — Michigan State and Purdue — postponed due to COVID issues within the program.

“We're helping each other through it. That's where we are right now,” Howard said on the “Inside Michigan Basketball” radio show on Monday night. “It's frustrating for everyone — players, coaches, all staff members. We were looking forward to not having any type of shutdown.”

Head coach Juwan Howard and Michigan are scheduled to play at Illinois on Friday, after their last two games were postponed because of COVID issues within the program.

Michigan’s internal problems began when several Wolverines tested positive for COVID after the team traveled back to Ann Arbor from Orlando, Florida on Dec. 31. That led to four players and one staff member missing last week’s loss at Rutgers due to COVID protocols.

The situation grew worse on Friday, when the virus spread and a round of testing that night produced more positive results. Michigan fell below the Big Ten’s minimum of seven available scholarship players and Saturday’s rivalry game against Michigan State was shelved. On Sunday, the Wolverines revealed they still wouldn’t meet the threshold for Tuesday’s game against Purdue and that matchup was also put on hold.

For a Michigan team that’s hovering above .500 at 7-6 and needs signature wins to boost its lacking resume, the disruption came at an inopportune time.

“They want to play, but health obviously comes first, and safety is a part of that as well,” said Howard, whose team is scheduled to play Friday at Illinois. “We will continue to get work in the gym for those who are able to participate. Fortunate enough, my coaching staff, no one tested positive on that end.”

While the timing of the Michigan State postponement wasn’t ideal — an official announcement wasn’t made until roughly eight hours before the scheduled tip-off — Spartans coach Tom Izzo had no issue with how things were handled.

However, Izzo said he wished there was more transparency and clarity from schools when it comes to player booster rates and protocols regarding quarantine and testing. Last season, all Big Ten teams followed the same medical protocols that were established by the conference. That’s not the case this season.

Howard said he’s been following the guidelines and respects the protocols the program has in place. The NCAA recommends five days of quarantine after a positive test, with isolation ending “if there are no symptoms or symptoms are resolving.”

“I trust the medical professionals we have on campus that are advising me and advising the entire basketball family about what is best to keep us all healthy and safe,” Howard said. “I trust the leadership and how they’ve educated me throughout the process.”

Howard said he and his staff routinely have been checking in on the affected players, concerned about their mental and physical health. For those who can practice, Howard has been finding ways to help each individual get better, whether it’s working on shooting and free throws, or doing drills on closing out and boxing out.

This isn’t the first time Howard has had to deal with COVID-related challenges. Last season, the Wolverines had to weather a multi-week, athletic department-wide pause due to issues in other programs. That led to five Big Ten games being postponed, and ultimately two of those contests were rescheduled as Michigan went on to win the regular-season title.

While this break should be shorter, the situations aren't the same. There's likely a difference in players getting back into shape after possibly having COVID-19 versus coming back after sitting around in their apartments. And unlike last year when the Wolverines were on a roll and playing well at the time of the pause, this year’s team is sputtering and struggling to turn things around after an uneven start.

In a season that’s already been riddled with setbacks and frustration, the COVID outbreak has only added to it.

“This is something that we're all dealing with,” Howard said. “There are some teams out there that had to shut down similar to what we're doing now. You hate it when it's you, but that's a part of it.”

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins