Gophers basketball off to 3-0 start amid COVID-19 uncertainty

Both Gach scores for the Gophers during their 67-64 win over Loyola-Marymount Monday night at Williams Arena. ((credit: University of Minnesota Athletics))

The Gophers men’s basketball team got its first real taste of playing without fans Monday night against Loyola Marymount at Williams Arena.

Marcus Carr hit the game-winning 3-pointer with 2.9 seconds left. Normally, it would bring Gophers fans at The Barn to their feet screaming. Monday? Carr pounded his chest and the team celebrated in an otherwise quiet 67-64 victory.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there won’t be fans at Williams Arena any time soon.

“Marcus hits a dynamic game-winner and I almost just kind of looked around like what do I do? It’s an adjustment for sure. I hate it for our guys, I hate it for Marcus Carr,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “He works his butt off, makes a great play and he can’t feel that enthusiasm.”

Since Williams Arena is mostly empty for games, the Gophers can’t rely on their fans for energy. They have to create their own, something that’s stressed daily in practice. The Gophers have an energy guy in Jarvis Omersa, and he’s not shy about it.

“I think it’s very important. I think the energy always needs to be there and it especially needs to come from our team. It’s going to be us and them out there and nobody else,” Omersa said.

It’s just one of many challenges Pitino and the Gophers face, trying to play a schedule in the middle of a global health pandemic. It starts every day at about 8 a.m. Players wake up and head to the practice facility. But before they can touch a basketball, they get tested for COVID-19.

They sit, not so patiently, waiting for results. Before the season, the Gophers had to pause for two weeks due to multiple positive COVID-19 cases within the team. So far, so good through three games. They also have to live with the reality they might not do anything wrong, follow all the protocols and still test positive. That would mean they’re out 21 days.

“It’s pretty scary. We get tested every day, we go in there and just sitting down, waiting on the results. We’re not doing anything wrong, we just go home every day and just be around each other all day. Just having the fear of having to sit out those three weeks is always scary,” forward Eric Curry said.

It’s been a challenge on the court. No eight-week summer training time, no exhibition games and they had to shut down for two weeks in the fall. Strict protocols at practice, and with every game they play it feels like they’ve dodged a bullet.

It’s not any easier away from the court. No team outings at the bowling alley, no groups at the movies. Players go home, spend time together when they can and it’s either video games, Netflix or group text messages and chats.

It’ll be especially challenging around Christmas. While families try to gather, they’ll be in isolation on campus. There are 11 players on the team not from Minnesota limited to phone calls and FaceTime with family. Their distraction will be hosting a top-five team in Iowa, even if the only way their families see it is on TV.

Pitino tries to be as empathetic with his players as he can be every day. They have resources to seek professional help on the bad days, or if they get home sick. He compared it to a 15-hour bus trip where they’re not around anyone else.

“I don’t know if anybody besides maybe the Amazon CEO is really killing it right now during a pandemic. It’s rough, you’ve got to let our guys know we’re here for them,” Pitino said.

The next challenge for the Gophers? Hosting North Dakota Friday night, assuming all COVID-19 testing clears.

“We’re just grateful to be able to play basketball with everything that’s going on,” Curry said.