Gophers plan to open season next week amid COVID-19 pandemic

Gophers men's basketball coach Richard Pitino talked Tuesday about starting the season next week and his team being impacted by COVID-19.

The University of Minnesota men’s basketball team hasn’t released a 2020-21 schedule yet, but coach Richard Pitino said Tuesday they plan to play their regular season opener at Williams Arena.

The Gophers are eight days away from hosting UW-Green Bay, and Pitino said he hasn’t even been given a game time yet. Welcome to life in college sports amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Pitino admitted his frustrations as a coach that he hasn’t been able to release a schedule, at least not yet.

“We can put something out and make everybody feel better, but the reality of this thing is it’s going to have to change. There’s going to be disruption, to think that there’s not going to be disruption is just crazy. We’re trying to play sports in a pandemic, and we’re not in a bubble and we’re on a college campus,” Pitino told reporters on Tuesday via Zoom. “The health and safety of the student athletes is the most important thing.”

Pitino said he’s hopeful the Gophers play their planned seven non-conference games.

The pandemic has hit especially close to home for the Gophers. Pitino had to pause team workouts for five days last week due to COVID-19 cases within the team. He couldn’t say how many positives there were, or if they were players or staff.

What Pitino does know is that when they take the floor next Wednesday, senior Eric Curry will be dressed and ready to play. Curry missed all of last season after tearing an ACL, and has missed most of the last three seasons with injuries. He showed promise as a freshman, scoring 5.5 points per game and finishing third on the team in rebounds.

Curry was recently named one of three captains for the season, along with Gabe Kalscheur and Marcus Carr.

“If we had a game today, he’d play. I’d tell you that much. He’s always been a good leader, but the challenging part has been staying on the court. We look better when he’s out there. He makes me look like a better coach,” Pitino said.

The Gophers will have a new look for their first game, welcoming six new players for the 2020-21 season. The incoming freshmen are guards David Mutaf and Jamal Mashburn Jr., and forward Martice Mitchell. The transfers are Austin native Both Gach, coming home from Utah, Western Michigan graduate transfer Brandon Johnson and Drake transfer Liam Robbins. Johnson is immediately eligible as a grad transfer, and Gach and Robbins each received waivers in the offseason.

Pitino said the team’s spring recruiting might be his best in seven seasons. He couldn’t pick a favorite among the six.

“I really like them all to be honest with you. They’re all very, very talented. They all want to win, they’re gym rats. I’m excited about all six of them,” Pitino said.

It’ll be interesting to see how the team comes together early. There was nothing normal about the offseason, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Normally Pitino gets eight weeks over the summer to work with players. That didn’t happen, as many stayed home and worked out on their own. There’s no open scrimmage, no “secret scrimmage” with another Division I team and no exhibition games before they play for real.

It’s a challenge, and one every team has to deal with.

“Oh my God, it’s the biggest difference I’ve ever seen in my life. This is not even a little bit normal. The preseason is not even close to normal, 1,000 percent totally different,” Pitino said. “We just don’t know, so you take it day to day. You’ve just got to live for today. We want to play, but we want to make sure we’re doing it in the safest possible way.”

Minnesota is coming of a 15-16 season, including an 8-12 mark in the Big Ten before having its season canceled after one game at the Big Ten Tournament.