RICHMOND, Va. — His entire team vaccinated and boosted, Notre Dame basketball coach Mike Brey thought the Fighting Irish, indeed all of college basketball, had finally beaten COVID-19. The pandemic had cost the sport its 2020 conference and NCAA tournaments and made last season unrecognizable, but now was time for routine to prevail.
Alas, showing little regard for vaccination status, the omicron variant has struck millions of us with troubling swiftness, prompting scores of postponements nationwide.
“I think we all got tricked into feeling we were out of the woods,” Brey said this week. “I know I was kind of feeling that way ... and quite frankly, I think for all of us in the league as coaches, it’s frustrating.”
Frustrating, yes, but like the country at large, college basketball is far better equipped than a year ago to cope.
Breakthrough infections notwithstanding, vaccines and boosters are effective in not only mitigating spread but also symptoms. Encouraged by that science, federal authorities have shortened isolation times for the infected and exposed.
All this I experienced first-hand last week, when after returning from Virginia Tech football’s Pinstripe Bowl in New York, I developed a nagging cough. A subsequent rapid COVID test, taken four weeks after my booster, was positive, but after two days of flu-like symptoms, I was on the mend.
“I feel like we are getting to the end of the road with it,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said. “With boosters and the amount of players that have already had it, I’d like to think that we’ll be OK from here on out in terms of being able to play games.”
By this time a year ago, the NCAA already had decided to stage its entire Division I men’s basketball tournament in controlled environments in and around Indianapolis rather than the traditional 13 cities around the country. A similar decision for the women’s event was a month away.
This season, there are no such plans, as the NCAA affirmed last week. Not to dismiss the current, and perhaps future, challenges.
The ACC has postponed league nine games, though two by only a day.
After last season, administrators, coaches and athletes at least are attuned to the physical and mental tolls disruptions bring.
For example, a team competing for the first time in 10, 12 or more days will be compromised, especially if its practices have been limited, and pushing too hard too soon in the aftermath can cause injuries.
“We looked like we were at the Lifetime Fitness 40-and-over league,” Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner said of the Yellow Jackets’ first practice after an extended pause. “We could barely get past halfcourt. We were so out of shape. It takes you about six weeks to get in tip-top shape and about one week to get out, and we were as winded as we could be.”
Saturday’s victory at N.C. State was Florida State’s first game in 17 days, most of which were spent not in practice but in isolation.
“We tried to be more conscious of the fact that these guys were going through a very stressful period,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “And I tried to understand, be a little more tolerant and then communicate more with them dealing with the frustrations of not being able to go home for Christmas, not having a chance to spend time with your loved ones and then being isolated. ...
“We just tried to communicate more because each kid comes from a different place mentally and emotionally. You can’t just make one statement that covers everybody. ... These are different type of times we’re going through, and I can’t imagine [being] 18, 19, 20 years old, what I’d have been thinking if I’d have been as isolated ... like these guys have the last couple years.”
A redeeming change from last season is the return of you, the fans, to arenas. Attendance restrictions a year ago relegated most games to an eerie mix of squeaking sneakers and manufactured crowd noise.
“The thing that I think is saving everybody is we have people in the stands,” Brey said. “That was a downer last year for a lot of people, and the kids especially.”
More postponements almost certainly are ahead, but optimism is far more prevalent than during last season’s chaos, when for example, Miami played 19 its 20 ACC games, while Virginia Tech managed only 13.
A road date at North Carolina and home visit from Pitt already shelved by an outbreak within his program, Hokies coach Mike Young wants as close to a full complement of games as possible.
“Now it’s going to get a little tricky, and that’s ... all right,” he said. “If it’s a Saturday, Monday, Wednesday, Saturday? I want to coach. Our team wants to play.”