Ed Cooley says he’s closely watching the mental state of his PC Friar team. (Photo courtesy PC Athletics)
By KEVIN McNAMARA
There can’t be many college basketball fans who aren’t enjoying a night in the old La-Z-Boy, in front of a 60-inch television, far removed from the dangers of the coronavirus.
The time spent watching the Friars, the Rams, UConn or Gonzaga is two hours away from the craziness in the world today. Yet with the college hoop season a bit more than a month old now, the wear and tear is taking hold on the players and coaches performing for the couch-bound fans.
“It’s no excuse. We own our record,” URI coach David Cox said, referring to his team’s uneven 3-5 start. “It’s been awfully difficult, awfully difficult for the kids.”
Cox isn’t alone. Ed Cooley calls his players “my babies” and he’s acted as a father figure for the group since everyone arrived at Providence College in late August. After wondering if there would even be a season, the Friars are charging on although most of the remainder of the student body deserted campus three weeks ago. No one had a chance to go home for Christmas.
“As much as we want to play, just take a step back,” Cooley said. “As a Dad, I have some empathy for these kids.”
UConn’s Dan Hurley knows all about coronavirus adversity. His Huskies couldn’t scatter for a few days of family reunions around a Christmas tree. That would have jeopardized a Dec. 30 game against DePaul.
“Everyone wants to hear that everything is going great, but in all honesty this is hard. It’s hard on these kids,” Hurley said.
All three of the coaches insist that playing games during a pandemic is worth it. It’s what the players want, no question. It beats being on campus and not touching a basketball, for sure.
But that doesn’t make this season unlike any other any easier to navigate. While teams continue to break down film, script game plans and search for a winning route to March, the biggest opponent of all – COVID19 – hovers over everyone.
The PC and URI hoop programs have remained unscathed in this COVID world, but not the same can be said for UConn. The Huskies have run into positive tests and the resulting quarantines twice. They’ve had games cancelled on game day due to positive tests on an opposing team. Team travel has been restricted by the Connecticut Department of Health.
Yet it sounds like maybe a new low was reached in the last few days. Not getting home for Christmas for the first time in your life is depressing. Loneliness is one thing, mental anguish is another.
In order to jazz things up the Rams boarded a bus and took the short ride over the Newport Bridge to the beautiful Gurney’s Hotel. A big dinner followed by a breakfast on Christmas morning helped ease the pain but nothing like the video shown after the pancakes were pounded away.
“It was a great video filled with family members wishing the guys well,” Cox said. “It was about 30 minutes and really powerful, really a good surprise.”
Hurley described UConn’s Christmas experience in bleaker terms. The Huskies have played just one game since Dec. 4 due to COVID issues so no one was taking any chances outside of a strict practice-eat-sleep routine.
“The holiday experience (was) basically to go from the practice facility to the dorm to a game, or maybe not a game because it was cancelled. Or you’re in a pause,” Hurley said. “This is really, really hard on the players. I give these guys that are going through this season a lot of credit for being as mentally tough as the kids in college basketball have been. It’s really hard for them.”
One bonus for UConn that the players at both PC and URI can’t enjoy is to see their parents on game days. UConn is allowing each player four tickets to each game. PC’s David Duke lives one mile from Alumni Hall but his parents (or even local media) aren’t allowed in to watch from the upstairs grandstand. URI’s Ryan Center is limited to 125 people per state rules, not enough to allow parents.
“That is a definite lift when you do get a home game and they can see their family from a distance,” Hurley said.
Yet waving to your Mom is different than a well-earned hug. That may be just what a 19-year old needs after missing a costly free throw like a few Huskies did in a 76-74 overtime loss to nationally ranked Creighton.
“After our Creighton game when you have such a heart-breaking defeat in a normal year you’d be able to huddle up with your family and maybe go grab a bite to eat,” Hurley said. “They could help you pick up the pieces after a tough night.”
URI’s players have been in Kingston since June. The extended stay away from home, away from friends and fellow students is a grind. “It’s played on the guys’ psyche,” he said.
That strain isn’t going away. All three teams are back in action Wednesday and the long grind of Atlantic 10 and Big East play has only just begun. Teams will keep testing three or more times a week, wearing their masks and hiding away from the rest of the student body when everyone returns to campus in a month.
Oh, and when the lights come on you had better be ready to beat Dayton or Villanova.
“What a lot of you aren’t seeing is the pressure that our players are under during this pandemic,” Cooley said. “They’re in the gym, the car, the plane, the bus, the room. Their emotional well-being, we have to try to keep that up the best we can. That’s something (the media) has to be extremely sensitive to around the country. Yes, we want to play basketball games but at the same time we’re still dealing with young, fragile 18-to-22 year olds that are really struggling. Some of these kids haven’t touched their loved ones in months.”