Archdeacon: College basketball teams one phone call away from disaster

Wright State head coach Scott Nagy, center, and the coaching staff watch their team play Green Bay during a men's basketball game at the Nutter Center in Fairborn Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020. E.L. Hubbard/CONTRIBUTED
Wright State head coach Scott Nagy, center, and the coaching staff watch their team play Green Bay during a men's basketball game at the Nutter Center in Fairborn Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020. E.L. Hubbard/CONTRIBUTED

Virus never far from thoughts of players, administrators.

FAIRBORN – Saturday morning – with his men’s team about to play Green Bay that afternoon and again on Sunday – Wright State athletics director Bob Grant held his breath every time his phone rang.

“We’re just a phone call away from everything changing dramatically,” Grant said. “It’s the kind of situation where you worry: ‘Is that one of our teams that just had a positive test? Is it an opponent who had a positive test?’”

The WSU men’s and women’s basketball teams – like most other Division I programs -- are trying to navigate through a cobbled-together college season that is being buffeted daily by the medical and mental challenges of the COVID 19 pandemic that has upended daily life all over the world.

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“Everything is so topsy-turvy and unprecedented, right now,” Grant said. “I think we all realize this is really a fragile and volatile situation.” While the Raiders have fared better than many programs – both in the area and around the nation – they still have had to deal with the uncompromising nature of the virus.

Already a month ago, WSU officials said eight women’s players and seven men’s players had tested positive for COVID in the summer and preseason. And both teams had games canceled earlier this season because of positive tests with an opponent or them.

The men’s team is now looking especially healthy on the court. With Saturday’s 67-53 win over Green Bay at the Nutter Center, the Raiders are now 5-1.

Bob Grant, Wright State Athletic Director
Bob Grant, Wright State Athletic Director

The talented women’s team is 3-3 going into next Friday’s game at Youngstown State.

Across town the University of Dayton women’s team has played just two games. In late November, Flyers coach Shauna Green contracted COVID – as would name coaches like Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Pitt’s Jeff Capel, Scott Drew of Baylor and Tennessee’s Rick Barnes this season – and quarantined two weeks.

Green came back for a Dec. 6 game and then the program temporarily shut down operations to deal with other COVID issues. Since then five games have been cancelled.

The Miami men’s team has put operations on hold as well because of virus issues and the Division II men’s program at nearby Cedarville has played just one game. Some smaller schools in the area have cancelled their seasons altogether or postponed the start of play until at least January.

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On Christmas Day, Duke University announced its women’s team had voted not to finish the season because of recurring COVID issues. They became the first team from a Power 5 conference to stop playing this season.

“I saw that and I wondered, ‘Is that the first of a bunch of dominos to fall?’” Grant said.

While he knows how vulnerable the season is, Grant said: “I don’t look at the Duke situation as doom and gloom and ‘Oh my goodness this is gonna happen!’”

He believes the Raiders medical staff and trainers are providing excellent care for the team and that head coaches Scott Nagy and his staff with the men and Trina Merriweather and her assistants with the women have the best interests of the athletes at heart.

And, most of all, the athletes themselves are making the sacrifices they need to stay safe and keep their teammates safe, as well.

“I think our true north at Wright State is going to be the student athletes’ safety and welfare and the second we don’t think we can keep them as healthy and safe as possible, we’ll pivot in a different direction,” Grant said.

The Horizon League has instituted a new format to keep travel and venue changes to a minimum this season, which is why both WSU-Green Bay games this season will be played this weekend at the Nutter Center and then on Jan. 1 and 2 the Raiders play their next two games with Oakland in Michigan.

Saturday at the Nutter Center no fans were allowed to attend and bench players and coaches sat on specially-assigned, well-distanced chairs spread out over three rows.

For now that is working, but like Grant said, things can change in an instant. Day after day games are being postponed or cancelled across the college basketball world.

Wednesday it was UCLA against Oregon. The day before it was Notre Dame-Syracuse. Last Monday the South Carolina men’s team put the season on pause.

Wright State guard Jaylon Hall dunks against Green Bay during a men's basketball game at the Nutter Center in Fairborn Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020. E.L. Hubbard/CONTRIBUTED
Wright State guard Jaylon Hall dunks against Green Bay during a men's basketball game at the Nutter Center in Fairborn Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020. E.L. Hubbard/CONTRIBUTED

No. 1 Gonzaga has had five games cancelled this month. Florida postponed three games this month.

Fifteen days ago the Gators star, Keyontae Johnson, the SEC Preseason Player of the Year, collapsed face first on the court in a game against Florida State.

He had had COVID-19 in the summer and once he was rushed to the hospital, he was put in a medically-induced coma as doctors dealt with his condition. He was diagnosed with myocarditis, a condition causing inflammation of the heart muscle that can lead to fatal consequences.

Doctors aren’t sure if COVID caused the myocarditis, but since then two more athletes – Miami Hurricanes’ football player Al Blades Jr. and Vanderbilt women’s basketball player Demi Washington, both who had COVID 19 – have contracted myocarditis.

Their seasons are over as is Johnson’s.

Situations like this have caused coaches like Capel, Duke’s Mike Krzyszewski and Iona’s Rick Pitino to publically question why college basketball is being played in a pandemic.

“I don’t think it feels right to anybody,” said Krzyzewski, the winningest college coach of all time.

Capel was of the same mind when he spoke to the media Dec. 7, just 12 days before he tested positive: “These kids are out there laying it on the line to entertain people. Something just doesn’t feel right about it now.

“The numbers were what they were back in March. I don’t know how you cancel it in March but say it’s OK to play now.”

Capel also took issue with the fact that college players are risking their health, but they aren’t getting paid.

That argument is for another time.

Of prime importance now is keeping players and coaches safe. There’s something to be said about the mental health that comes from a sense of normalcy, but that lays a lot of responsibility on the coaches themselves.

And it is on that front that Grant thinks Wright State has sideline leaders who are as good as you can get.

“I’ll admit there are few businesses that reward bad behavior like ours does, but that’s not how Trina or Scott are wired. They’re not about winning at all costs. They’re not about self promotion or seeking headlines.

“I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that Scott and Trina care about the student athletes first and foremost. They won’t do anything to jeopardize their health and safety. I can’t tell you what peace that gives me. It allows me to feel good about things when I lay my head on the pillow at night.”

Then all he has to worry about is that sudden wake-up call the next morning when, as he put it, everything can change dramatically.

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