Preparations for the upcoming season have not been normal for the Virginia basketball team. During the ongoing global pandemic, the Cavaliers frequently wear masks in practice, regularly undergo tests, and still haven’t released a full official schedule. Still, UVA coach Tony Bennett told reporters at virtual Media Day on Monday that it all “beats the alternative.”
“In the summer, away from us, a couple guys had the virus so there was that issue, but we’ve pretty much been able to practice, without interruption,” Bennett said. “How it’s affected us is – the connectedness is a challenge … you realize how much physical touch is important when you just like to put your arm around a player. You know, pat them on the back or whatever and you don’t do that as much and then you have got your mask on the coaches do and players have been for the most part in practices, though we will be moving away from that. But you feel a little disconnected. But again, I always say it beats the alternative but there’s not much facial reading, and again just patting people up. So, that part has been challenging, but it does beat the alternative, so I’m very thankful for that.”
The players have adapted to the situation as best as possible. Many teammates live together and spend most of their time together since contact with other students is limited this year. Classes are predominantly online and outside of attending practice at the John Paul Jones Arena, the players don’t venture out too often though they’ve been spotted at fall sporting events supporting other UVA teams.
That includes some of the home football games at Scott Stadium. The basketball players said they can use that as a model since Bronco Mendenhall’s players have not had many players out with the virus or through contact tracing during the first six games of the season.
“They’re doing a great job from everything I’ve heard,” Virginia senior Jay Huff said. “They just know that they are there to handle business. And I think that’s a really good model for what we should do. There’s a lot of stuff that other college students might get to do that’s a little riskier, I’d say in terms of trying to maintain our bubble that we don’t really get to do. So we’ve all just done a great job I think of maintaining that and just spending more time with each other team, which I think is really good.”
The team has tried to create some safe ways to spend time together beyond other sports too. Coach Bennett noted that the team had a meal at Michie Tavern and played mini golf together on another occasion. The team also visited the UVA Memorial to Enslaved Laborers again recently but this time had a guide that explained more details. Bennett called that visit “powerful.”
“We went to the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers that they put up. All of us have been there a couple times but we had a guy – we’re social distanced and did it in groups so we did all that stuff – but we had a guy really go into detail and share the story of what went behind it. That was so powerful, then we went to Michie Tavern, and had a great meal. So, you know, that was really good to do stuff like that. So you try to do things like that, because the guys really aren’t getting the ability to interact with their classmates, hang out as much, see their family. So again, you want to try to have some of those moments. … It’s really different for their, their interaction and their experience but I repeat, it beats the alternative.”
Even with limited interactions outside of the team bubble, Cavalier guard Kihei Clark said it hasn’t been hard to maintain social distancing protocols knowing that the season or some of the games are at stake. The Hoos are preparing for the scheduled season opener on Wednesday, Nov. 25. The Cavaliers have St. Peter’s on that date at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, one of a few non-conference games announced for the team. The rest of the schedule has not been released a this time.
Still, the Wahoos know that the schedule will feature 20 ACC dates among the 26 expected total games. That means that as things currently stand that they’ll play Villanova, Michigan State, Duke, UNC, and Florida State among the Associated Press’ preseason top 25 rankings that came out Monday. The Hoos, No. 4 in that poll, also have Florida on the docket and the Gators are just outside the AP top 25 too.
Much like the football program experienced with the delayed start to its season, however, the players still are feeling uncertainty despite knowing some of the schedule. After seeing the postseason abruptly cancelled in March and football games get postponed or dropped around the country at times, that’s understandable.
“It was kind of crazy, just the tournament getting canceled, so you don’t really know what’s going to happen,” Clark said. “You try to prepare as best as possible and just try to maintain your distance and just try to stay safe, just so you can be able to go out there and compete. So just trying to make sure your teammates are staying safe and make sure they’re following protocols. Anything can happen so we don’t really know what to expect.”
“It hasn’t really changed our preparation, but I think everyone in the back of their head is still kind of curious to see how this season is going to end up or how it’s going to work or if we’re going to be able to play the whole season,” Hauser said. “But we’re preparing like we got our first game on November 25th. We’re just hopeful we can play, and that’s the plan as of now. So we’re just going to keep getting to it every day.”
Rather than focus on what challenges the season might present, Bennett said that the Hoos will try to keep their attention locked in one day at a time. That means focusing on the needed work that’s required in the preseason, the season-long quest to improve, and attempting to maximize the potential for this year’s team.
“There’s a good verse in the Bible that says, ‘Worry about today for tomorrow has enough trouble of its own,’” Bennett said “So, we’re just taking it really like every coach would tell you – get as good as we can with the ways that we can and prepare and be hopeful. You know, really being hopeful for what could be.”