Usually, when UB travels down I-90 to take on Syracuse, the Bulls are greeted by over 20,000 raging Orange fans.
This year they will be greeted by none.
In the midst of a pandemic, college basketball, for the first time ever, will not open its doors to fans. It is a season unlike any other, but one the Bulls and many other teams in the country are grateful to have.
In late November, the Bulls were one of 40 teams to travel to Uncasville, CT, to play in “Bubbleville.” For the vast majority of these athletes, this was the first time they’ve played without fans outside of practices or scrimmages.
It was also the first time head coach Jim Whitesell ever coached a game without fans.
“It was wild, you go out there and pipe in the fan noise, referees have masks on and you’re trying to communicate with them while trying to master coaching a game with a mask on,” Whitesell said. "Add that to the list of challenges these college teams will face this season along with the inevitable nuisance of having to reschedule or cancel games."
UB was originally scheduled to take on Iona and Vermont in “Bubbleville,” but both teams pulled out for COVID related reasons, leaving the Bulls to find new opponents: Towson and Army.
The Bulls, however, didn’t care about the schedule change, they just wanted a chance to play.
“We were appreciative to just get out on the floor,” junior forward Jeenathan Williams said. “We were happy to play and we would have played anybody.”
The atmosphere inside arenas during the opening week of college hoops is unlike any other. Fans wait months to cheer for their squads and their anticipation to watch their favorite players and new standout freshmen builds to its maximum, ready to be released on opening night.
At Mohegan Sun, pre-recorded crowd noise was projected into the arena in an attempt to simulate fans. Players will hear the fans, but when they look to the bleachers, they’re empty.
But the fake crowd noises didn’t phase Williams.
“It felt kind of normal, I didn’t really notice it. But when you look in the stands it did look bland,” Williams said.
In a win against Towson, Williams put up a career high 28 points and 12 rebounds.
“I was feeling good,” Williams said. “I worked real hard in the offseason and wanted to showcase it. I was ready to play.”
For senior guard Jayvon Graves, knowing family and friends at home were watching, evened out the crowdless arena.
Graves, in his last year of eligibility, said, “We will miss playing for our fans at home. Our fans are great. But we’ll have to just put on a show [on TV].”
Gameplay was a little different for the Bulls as well. Since there were no screaming fans in attendance the court was quieter.
As fans watched the games on TV, there were many instances where you can hear players calling plays, communicating on defense and the occasional outbursts from coaches.
Being able to communicate with teammates may be the only positive that came with having fanless arenas, as players normally have to yell or get very close to each other to make adjustments.
“[The] communication was clearer, I feel like we can hear each other way better,” Williams said. “But sometimes you can’t hear coach because he has the mask on.”
Graves agreed and said, “You can definitely hear each other more clearly and after timeouts the guys can talk to you more easily.”
Although being able to hear better while playing is a plus for players and their coaching staff, the trash talk has to be kept a little more under the radar.
“You got to be slick. You can’t be too loud,” Williams said.
“Bubbleville” was a new experience for all who were involved, and as complicated and different it may have been, the Bulls say they kept a positive mindset.
Graves says the “Bubbleville” experience as a whole wasn’t bad.
“Bubbleville was good. It was a controlled environment, and you knew you weren’t going to get COVID and knew games weren’t going to get canceled and the games were competitive,” Graves said. “When we first got there we had to quarantine for 8 hours and they brought us food. Also, someone watched you anywhere you went so it was very strict.”
When UB arrived early on Thanksgiving morning, they had to quarantine until 6:30 p.m. The team was given boxed lunches but when their quarantine was finished they had a Thanksgiving dinner.
Whitesell was pleased with Mohegan Sun in terms of their food options, how they treated the programs and the daily testing protocols.
Every morning, the players and coaching staff reported downstairs for testing. From there they would eat breakfast, practice, watch film and do it all again the next day.
“Hopefully we never go through a ‘Bubbleville’ scenario again, but I would give them a 10 out of 10 in terms of their work for the players and atmosphere,” Whitesell said.
Although the Bulls first games back were difficult to schedule, arrange and play, the players were grateful to have the chance to take to the court again.
“We were really excited to get out with our brothers and our chemistry gets better every day,” Graves said.
Robby Salisbury is an assistant sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SalisburyRobby