As of now, American University has not played any games. Until that ball is in the air to begin the Eagles’ game at Navy, there are no guarantees.
“Hopefully,” said American trainer Mike Brennan, “we’ll get there.”
This is how a college basketball season is kept together in the midst of a pandemic: with security protocols and flexibility and above all hope. There are 357 Men’s Division I programs nationwide. The Ivy League decided against the game at all, as did Bethune-Cookman and Maryland-Eastern Shore of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
Of the remaining 347 schools, only two have to play: American and Loyola (Md.), Your brothers in the Patriot League. Both are scheduled to open on Saturday, two months after the start of a normal season: Americans at noon in Annapolis, Loyola at 4 p.m. in Lehigh.
A real game after all?
“You really want to be on the pitch,” said Brennan. “You really want to keep up. I give credit to our guys: they have been great in practice. But after a while, it’s just hard to take action against your roommate every day. Beyond that, there has to be something. “
In a normal season there is a rhythm to get to a season opener. Small group training in the summer leads to full team exercises in October that extend over six weeks until the first game.
But when college sports tried to overcome the coronavirus pandemic – even when most students are off campus, as is the case with American – the regular rhythms were replaced with unpredictable syncopation. The Americans’ first full-squad training didn’t take place until the Monday after Thanksgiving – a point at which the team would normally play non-conference games. American chose to play just one conference schedule, however, and the Eagles were due to open against Loyola on January 2.
“It seemed forever,” said Brennan.
It turns out forever and a few weeks. On December 31st, the Loyola program returned a positive test among its “Tier 1” staff – the group that includes players, coaches and key support staff. The next day the American program was also positive. This not only wiped out the two American Loyola games that weekend, but according to security protocols a break of 10 days was provided for both programs. Therefore, the American games against Lehigh planned for last weekend have been postponed.
“There was a point where we’d been practicing for about a month, and we had about three days around Christmas time when we needed a break,” Brennan said. “But after that we didn’t need a 10-day break. You try to do it positive by telling the guys that they have been great so far, but you also know that they are essentially in quarantine. How are you? Ask them to do pushups, just stay safe. We saw films as a team. We saw the film individually. “
And then they came back. The Navy game was a goal, but by now the Eagles knew, no certainty.
In the meantime, the college basketball industrial machine went on. Even as games were postponed or canceled from coast to coast due to positive testing in programming, a steady stream of games was pumped onto television screens. In this case, it may appear that the competition is only programming for networks that urgently need it. The players are reduced to actors making money for others as they put themselves at risk if the rest of their classmates are asked to stay home.
That is where the truth lies, and it’s no fun to think about. However, reducing high-level college basketball to this mindset also negates the fact that most players choose to play these games out of a love for the sport and the competition it offers. That is what the American players have missed in those many months. For them, the games on TV are athletes who can do what they’d like to do: play.
“You miss it,” said Brennan.
And in order to get the opportunity – or to keep the hope alive that they will eventually get the opportunity – they make sacrifices, as we have all done in these extraordinary times. They practice in masks. They live almost in isolation. Now that a game is within reach, they can almost give it a try – even if they don’t want to bewitch that a game might actually take place.
“We’re supposed to play Navy,” said Brennan. “You want to lock almost everyone in one room until you get a tip. But our guys did a really good job. They understand why we do what we do. “
Given what they do – practicing in seizures and trying to prepare for games that aren’t guaranteed to play those games – there’s a fair question: is it worth it? The Ivy League is sitting outside. Others have trouble putting schedules together.
“I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer,” Brennan said. “But I’m confident about AU and how they went through the whole process from the start. I was never afraid to call parents and tell them our plans. I feel good in running practices that keep not only the children safe but also the people who need to help to make this happen. We don’t do anything reckless.
“Of course one could make an argument: what kind of season is it really? But I’m glad we do. “
And if the referee tosses that ball up and it tips and the clock starts ticking, Brennan will become the penultimate Men’s Division I coach doing his most basic job: coaching his team in a spotty 2020-21 season.
“I think it will be relief,” he said.