Conducting practices in small groups with masks in place and social distancing has created an odd atmosphere for Virginia men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett. Not being able to read facial expressions or pat a guy on the back is unusual.
Then again, it’s better than not playing at all in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve pretty much been able to practice without interruption,” said Bennett, adding his coaches and players have avoided positive tests, but a couple of his team managers had to quarantine in the summer for contact tracing. “How it’s affected us is … the connectedness is a challenge. You realize how much physical touch is important when you put your arm around a player or pat them on the back or whatever. You don’t do that as much, and you’ve got your mask on, the coaches do and the players have been for the most part in practices, though we’ll be moving away from that, but you feel a little disconnected. I always say it beats the alternative.”
U.Va., ranked fourth in the Associated Press preseason poll released Monday, is still technically the reigning NCAA champion, since the NCAA tournament got wiped out last season near the start of the pandemic and the Cavaliers were the last one to win it, in 2019. Bennett doesn’t bring up the championship distinction to his players anymore.
Instead, U.Va. is focused on starting a season that as of Monday afternoon was still void of a concrete schedule. The ACC is scheduled to release schedules Tuesday morning.
U.Va.'s players know they’ll take on Saint Peter’s on Nov. 25 and Florida on Nov. 26 in Uncasville, Connecticut, in a setting at the Mohegan Sun Arena that’s being referred to as “Bubbleville.” Games on Dec. 9 against Michigan State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and Dec. 19 against Villanova in Madison Square Garden are also on the agenda.
Yet, the big questions remain — how is this going to work? Will teams be able to play at all if a player or coach tests positive for the virus?
“It’s going to be interesting — just like the way the tournaments in the bubbles, the individual bubbles, are going to go, but I can’t wait. I’m anxious. I can’t wait to step out on the floor. I know a bunch of the guys can’t wait as well, so it’ll be interesting, but we’ll just try to prepare as best as possible and wish for the best.”
Among U.Va.'s new additions is forward Sam Hauser, a 6-foot-8 redshirt senior who sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules after arriving from Marquette. After averaging 14.9 points and 7.9 rebounds per game in the 2018-19 season on his way to second-team All-Big East distinction, Hauser is expected to be one of the most impactful newcomers in the ACC.
He’ll play in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge against his little brother, Joey, who transferred from Marquette to Michigan State.
“I was definitely excited to see that,” Sam Hauser said. “I’ve never played against my brother. We’ve always been on the same team, so the parents are excited, the whole family is excited. I’m curious to see who they’re going to cheer for or where they’re going to be in the stands.”
When the season ended in the spring before the Cavaliers’ ACC tournament quarterfinal, U.Va. was 23-7 and had risen to No. 16 in the nation while on an eight-game winning streak. Bennett hopes at least some of that momentum has a long shelf life.
“I think pretty much starting over, but I think for some of the returners, I hope there is some carryover, because they were playing good basketball, but you do have a different team," Bennett said. "Again, for the guys who played last year, you know there’s obviously that desire, and realize they were on a roll and then the season got cut short, there’s an excitement for that.”
Norm Wood, firstname.lastname@example.org
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