Gophers basketball opens season Wednesday amid COVID-19 uncertainty

Marcus Carr scored 27 points and had nine assists in Minnesota's 75-69 win over Penn State on Wednesday at Williams Arena. ((credit: University of Minnesota))

The University of Minnesota men’s basketball team opens its 2020-21 regular season Wednesday night against UW-Green Bay at Williams Arena. We know that much for now.

After that, it's anyone’s guess. There won’t be fans at The Barn, just the two teams and essential game day staff. As COVID-19 cases and deaths rise in Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz issued tighter restrictions on indoor and outdoor public gatherings. As Richard Pitino wakes up every day, there’s nothing certain about anything until his players and staff clear COVID-19 testing.

“You have to live with the uncertainty of what’s going on right now, but it beats the alternative of not being able to play. I know when our guys are with us, we can provide as safe an environment as we possibly can in our own pseudo bubble. We’re excited about tomorrow, but this is such a day to day thing,” Pitino said.

The Gophers had to pause workouts about two weeks ago after multiple COVID-19 cases within the program. It’s the gamble they take, trying to play sports amid a global health pandemic.

Their rules are the same as football. A player tests positive, and once it’s confirmed they’re out 21 days. They get tested daily, they have strict protocols within their own facility and the players have their own accountability to keep themselves safe on their own time.

“Somebody asked me a question the other day, like pandemic aside, there’s no such thing as pandemic aside. This is a big deal, we want to provide an opportunity for our guys to be able to play, they want to play, but it’s also very, very challenging. But everybody is dealing with it,” Pitino said.

Entering his eighth season at Minnesota, Pitino has told his team they have three opponents as long as there’s basketball. They have to try to find a way to beat COVID-19, not beat themselves on the court and beat their opponent.

It’s on the entire team to make sacrifices to stay healthy, and even then there’s no guarantees.

“It’s been a crazy time for everybody. Coach is always kind of saying we have more than one opponent, and COVID is one of them. Stay as safe as we can off the court, make sure we’re doing all the right things so we can put ourselves in the best position to have the best season we can,” guard and captain Marcus Carr said.

Pitino has one of his deepest teams ever, and the timing couldn’t be better in the event somebody has to be out multiple games.

His returning starters include Carr, the second-leading scorer last year, and Gabe Kalscheur, a sharp-shooter and the team’s top on-ball defender. They’ve brought in transfers Liam Robbins at center, Brandon Johnson at power forward and Austin native Both Gach as a guard/wing combo.

The bench is also deep. It’ll include freshman guard Jamal Mashburn Jr., wings Isaiah Ihnen and Tre Williams and forward Eric Curry, who will play his first game in two years Wednesday night. There’s also forward Jarvis Omersa, freshman David Mutaf and back-up center Sam Freeman. In the COVID-19 era, everyone has to be ready.

“When you’re coaching in the middle of a pandemic, you have no idea what’s in front of you,” Pitino said. “Everybody on the team has got to be ready. It’s an adventure every single day.”

It’s a pivotal year for Pitino and the Gophers. They finished last season 15-16 after the Big Ten Tournament was shut down by COVID-19. Pitino is 48-82 in Big Ten play, and the program needs to take a step forward in 2020.

The Big Ten is loaded with talent this eason, and every game will be a challenge.

Last Saturday, Pitino held an intrasquad scrimmage at Williams Arena. It was the first time anyone new in the program played on the raised court together. With the COVID-19 pandemic, there were no exhibitions, no secret scrimmages and no “Midnight Madness” celebrations to open the season. They get up to seven non-conference games to figure things out before the grind of the Big Ten.

It’s Thanksgiving week, and Pitino can’t have the team at his house for a meal. He can’t bring his kids to practice to hang out with the players.

“I constantly remind myself you’re in the middle of a pandemic. That’s a challenge. You hate it for these guys, they’re not having a normal college experience. We’ve just got to get through it, day by day,” Pitino said.

They want to play, and those daily sacrifices are one step in the process to try to have a season. Even that might not be enough. But for now, they’ll play Wednesday night.

“Every opportunity that we get to work with these guys and coach and get better and push them to get better is a blessing. Getting to play a game is a win in itself,” Pitino said.