Gophers remain clear of COVID-19 as Big Ten releases new forfeiture guidelines

Gophers guard Payton Willis was named the Big Ten Co-Player of the Week on Monday. ((credit: University of Minnesota Athletics))

The University of Minnesota men’s basketball team started slow, but eventually pulled away for a 72-56 win over UW-Green back on Dec. 23.

Ben Johnson gave his players time off, told them to go home and spend Christmas with their families and had a clear message: Be smart. The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t going anywhere, and now the Omicron variant is spreading across multiple sports. Athletes are testing positive, and games are getting postponed or canceled across college basketball.

To this point, Johnson and the Gophers have gone about their business without a single case. The Gophers women’s basketball team won’t host Northwestern on Friday, due to COVID-19 cases with the Wildcats. Johnson’s squad is set to host Illinois on Sunday, but that game is in doubt on the Illini side.

Johnson said the Gophers are fully-vaccinated for COVID-19, and those who are eligible have gotten booster shots.

"Control what you can control. This is not something where everybody is completely immune from it, there could very well be a chance at some point that we get hit like everybody. If you can, in your own bubble, control what you can control, it puts you in a better position to be healthy and be safe," Johnson said Tuesday.

On Tuesday, the Big Ten Conference released new guidelines for teams that can put a roster on the floor for games due to COVID-19 cases. No more immediate forfeits, the league will do the best it can to reschedule games.

A team must be able to have at least seven scholarship players, and one coach, available to play. Teams can play with fewer than seven if it’s deemed safe by medical personnel. 

"I don’t know if there’s a perfect way to do it, to be honest. I just know this, if you’re healthy you want to get in as many games as you can. We’re in a position now where we’re healthy and we want to keep playing," Johnson said. "I just feel like if you’re in league play and you’re healthy, let’s find a way to play these games and get them going as long as we can."

You can’t blame Johnson for wanting to play. The first-year head coach has turned heads with the Gophers off to a 10-1 start, which includes true road wins at Pittsburgh, at Mississippi State and at Michigan. They can finish their non-conference season undefeated with a win over Alcorn State Wednesday night. Their only loss came to Michigan State to open the season. What followed was a convincing win at Michigan.

He expects his team to be ready Wednesday night. The Gophers trailed Green Bay at half, during a week mixed with final exams and the holidays looming. Many teams around college basketball are on pause, so they’re going to embrace every chance they get.

"Our guys know what we have at stake. I don’t know if there’s a lot of people outside of the people in our room who thought that was realistic. Now it’s a chance to go undefeated in the non-conference, which to me is a big deal," Johnson said. "We can’t take this for granted, you need to be hungry to go out and compete because you never know when it can be taken away."

There were many who thought the Gophers might not win 10 games in Johnson’s inaugural season. Now, they’re on the verge of being ranked in the top 25. In his latest NCAA Bracketology, Joe Lunardi had the Gophers as the No. 36 overall seed, a No. 9 seed in the tournament.

Nine new players, led by transfers and leading scorers Jamison Battle and Payton Willis. A returning and healthy veteran in Eric Curry, and a group of other veterans who came from low major schools with a chip on their shoulder.

It’s a formula that, so far, has worked for Johnson.

"I think it’s more we’re putting a collection of pieces together to play a good brand of basketball that I think is conducive to winning. That was the whole goal," Johnson said. "When you put guys in a room that have the same vision, that are built with the same type of stuff on the inside, that compete, that want to be here, I don’t think you put a ceiling on those type of people. It’s obviously played out well for us, but we’ve got a long ways to go."