COVID-19 shutdown puts start of UConn men’s season in doubt

Dom Amore, Hartford Courant
·6 min read

The UConn men remain in quarantine, limited to two players at a time — roommates only, opposite ends of the court, one basketball in use. No coaches can be involved.

This is not a place any coach wants to be with the scheduled start of the season less than two weeks away.

“There’s a level of anxiety coaches and players all share right now about our ability to be prepared for opening night,” Hurley said Thursday, on a Zoom call with state reporters. “Not just to play well, but just to be in the type of physical condition for a player to be safe to go out on game night after missing so much time.”

The Huskies had to shut down after a player tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 5. Hurley, speaking from his office in the Werth Family Center, could not say who or how many players, or "tier-1 personnel, which includes coaches and staff, tested positive. If the team is cleared to return to practices after 14 days, that would be Nov. 19, sixth days before the Huskies' planned an opening game against CCSU.

No contracts have been signed for nonconference games against CCSU or UHart on Nov. 27. Though Hurley said playing on those dates was still “possible,” he described the difficulty and risk of injury in getting a team ramped back up to game speed after a two-week layoff.

“Missing two weeks takes weeks to recover from,” Hurley said, “so we’re very concerned about the welfare of our guys upon returning, how hard to push them in practice. Do we need to adjust our nonconference schedule based on where we are at right now? And I guess, just the emotional and mental well-being of guys who are in quarantine and are able to be with the group again. We’re a pretty close-knit tribe, so we’re trying to do the best we can to stay connected and keep the guys going.”

The practice facility is open for players to use under the strict protocols. They can use the weight room, but sports performance director Mike Rehfeldt and his staff must stay in their offices. On the court, they can do ballhandling and shooting, but not with another player nearby to rebound or guard, and these limitations will likely be in place until Nov. 19.

“You crush your team that first day back with a two-hour practice," Hurley said, "and you have a high risk of getting somebody hurt or debilitating your team. You take two weeks off and then you have potentially six practices before you have an opener, and then you get into a series where you have game one day, two days off, game, one day off, so we’re in a difficult spot, a lot of schools are right now. We just have to adapt.”

UConn is not alone in these trying circumstances, unique for even the most experienced coaches. Among the new Big East rivals, Villanova and Marquette had to quarantine for 14 days earlier this fall. On Thursday, Seton Hall, which is scheduled to open at Louisville on Nov 25, announced it had positive tests and went into quarantine.

After those two in-state games at Gampel Pavilion, the Huskies would go into a “bubble” at Mohegan Sun to play Vanderbilt on Dec. 1, either BYU or Southern Cal on Dec. 3 and possibly NC State on Dec. 5. None of that can be considered certain.

“We were put in a position to take care of these guys, these players,” Hurley said. “That’s your No.1 responsibility, to take great care of these players. We’ve got to make decisions with scheduling based on what’s in the best interest of our players and their welfare. Everything’s on the table for us right now.”

Big East play is to start Dec. 11 at Gampel Pavilion against St. John’s, with five games before Dec. 23, three on the road.

“We’re evaluating," Hurley said, "what can we do leading into the most important part of our season, and the most likely part of our season, which is Big East play? That’s what we want to try to put ourselves in position to be as close to full strength for.”

On Thursday, UConn’s COVID-19 dashboard showed 13 new cases on campus and 12 off campus. Of the 13 on campus, seven were already in quarantine. There are 37 active cases among 5,000 students, and a positive rate of 0.74 percent.

After Nov. 20, the university is to switch to on-line classes only until the end of January, so winter sports athletes in competition have the campus largely to themselves.

“Potentially our eco-system is going to shrink," Hurley said, "and become maybe more conducive to the virus not spreading and that will provide us more time to have practice and be able to play games.”

The timing and length of the shutdown, Hurley said, has slowed the recovery process for Akok Akok, who is in the late stages of rehabbing a ruptured Achilles, and Brendan Adams, who was about to return to practices after recovering from a foot injury.

More on the new Huskies

Hurley received signed National Letters of Intent from his 2021 recruits, Rahsool Diggins, Jordan Hawkins and Samson Johnson on Wednesday, a group analysts rank in the top 10 nationally and could be Hurley’s best class yet.

Hurley envisions Johnson, 6-foot-10, and Adama Sanogo, 6-9, playing in the frontcourt together at UConn, as they did briefly at The Patrick School in New Jersey

“[Associate head coach] Kimani Young and I loved [Johnson] right away,” Hurley said. “He projects to be not only a great player here, but potentially an NBA-level talent.”

Diggins, a 6-0 point guard from Philadelphia, reminds Hurley of Fatts Russell, who played for him at Rhode Island. “Rahsool is the type if point guard will all types of game and skill and feel," Hurley said, " with Philly toughness, Philly grit and Philly confidence. Every time he steps on the court he feels he’s the best player. The kind of moxie you want in your quarterback.”

Of Hawkins, 6-5 shooting guard from DeMatha Classic, outside D.C, Hurley said, “He’s central casting for the type of prototypical athletic shooter with great length and all types of upside. He’s just the perfect type of wing prospect that’s going to be incredibly dynamic. A next-level prospect.”

Dom Amore can be reached at damore@courant.com

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