No more fans in the stands, no more team dinners on the road and masks are worn everywhere besides the gym.
Some circumstances have changed, yet expectations remain the same.
“Sacrifice now, celebrate later. Don’t let COVID beat you today.”
This is the mantra UB men’s basketball head coach Jim Whitesell has been telling his players.
The Bulls recently began practice and are preparing for the unique season ahead of them. Although players don’t have to wear masks while in the gym, they are required to wear one in the locker room and even in the 15-foot hallway between the locker room and the gym.
The team arrived in Buffalo on Aug. 10, but didn’t start practicing as a full unit until last week.
Once the players got to UB, they had a mandatory 14-day quarantine period. This was followed by two weeks of weightlifting and light conditioning. By late August, the players began to get back into the gym. After a few weeks of individual and small-group drills, the team began practicing on Oct. 14, more than two months after they got to school.
The team is currently under surveillance testing, which means they only test people who show symptoms. After a period of surveillance testing, the team will begin testing three times a week.
“If [they] have the sniffles, we’re testing them. We’re not taking any chances,” Whitesell said. “We keep them out of practice, which has been a big adjustment.”
If anyone on the team or coaching staff test positive, the team has to immediately pause all activities.
“One player shuts everything down. That’s the way basketball is, right? Now, to me, that’s a tough rule,” Whitesell said.
Once games begin and teams start traveling, this rule could drastically impact how the college basketball season plays out. If games have to be cancelled or whole teams are eliminated from play because of a positive test, this season could be chaotic.
Whitesell is confident in how his team has learned how to deal with COVID.
“I think we’re getting more educated with how to fight and stay away from the virus,” he said. “Our players are much more educated than they were two months ago. Our medical team has done a wonderful job in terms of educating our players.”
Although Whitesell believes they will make it through the entire season, this won’t be without some hiccups.
“I do think there’s going to be some interruptions across the country,” Whitesell said . “I think the NCAA has a good plan, but it would not shock me to see some schedule changes. We might have to pivot like the NFL has, but we’ll see what happens.”
The NFL has had to reschedule multiple games due to players and coaches testing positive for COVID, similar to what could happen in college basketball.
Another aspect of this season that won’t be normal is the absence of fans at Alumni Arena for home games.
“We’re used to having a lot of people come out, especially the games with that atmosphere at our house, so it’ll be a little different,” Graves said.
Although there won’t be fans in Alumni Arena for now, Whitesell says he thinks some road teams could have fans in the stands.
“We’re going to go on the road in some states that’ll have fans,” Whitesell said. “Maybe we will later on in the season.”
A limited number of people will be allowed in the arena, all will be required to wear masks.
Whitesell has been adjusting to wearing a mask while he coaches, something that’s not always easy when yelling from the sidelines.
“It’s different because your voice is muffled. We’ve been talking a lot about communication with our team,” Whitesell said. “A big thing for us is that we have a lot of seniors, these are guys that played for us last year and know our system. I wear the mask for every meeting, it’s never off, so the guys have gotten used to it.”
Even with all the uncertainty and new protocols, since coming back to practice, Whitesell says there’s a sense of “normalcy” in terms of how players have been competing.
The team currently practices three hours a day with the players being maskless on the court.
As difficult as it is to adjust to not having team events, the team feels as if they have become closer.
“Since we’ve been back in Buffalo, we all really just have been able to hang out in each other’s apartments here at school. We’re really in kind of a little bubble,” senior center Brock Bertram said. “We’ve made a lot of great strides in team chemistry and we’ve gotten to know all the new guys pretty well.”
Alex Lenneberg is an assistant sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @lennebergalex.
Alex Lenneberg is an assistant sports editor for The Spectrum.