One week from today, the still-reigning national champion Virginia Cavaliers will take the court for the first time in the 2020-21 season. The Hoos were on an eight-game win streak to end the regular season in 2019-20 before everything abruptly shut down on March 12. Instead of playing in the postseason, the Cavaliers went home and waited as the world dealt with the spread of COVID-19.
Now, still in the midst of the same pandemic, Virginia readies itself to start up again. The season has been affected with a later start date — November 25 instead of November 10 — and non-conference schedules that have been reduced and modified. Fans won’t be allowed in a lot of venues this season, and those that are allowed will find themselves in a much less crowded arena.
Normally, teams would play several exhibition games or scrimmages as coaches get their squads ready for play. This year, that isn’t the case. Still, Tony Bennett and the Cavaliers are doing what they can to press forward and prepare to open the season against Maine on November 25th.
“How it’s affected us is – the connectedness is a challenge you know you can’t, you realize how much physical touch is important when you just like to put your arm around a player. You know, pat them on the back or whatever. You don’t do that as much, and then you have got your mask on ... but you feel a little disconnected,” Bennett told media members last week. “So, that part has been challenging, but it does beat the alternative, so I’m very thankful for that.”
Over the 20-minute press conference, Bennett always balanced out the challenges faced this year with the same declaration: “It beats the alternative.” Season schedules weren’t announced until earlier this month, and some schools have already had to postpone or reschedule games as a result of outbreaks within their programs.
The uncertainty around the season has been prevalent, something that highly-touted Marquette transfer Sam Hauser noted. “I’m just hopeful we can get all of our games in, first and foremost,” Hauser told the media. “It’s been a lot different, just the outlook to everything, because we really don’t know what’s going to happen next week, next month, for the rest of the season. But in terms of basketball-wise, it’s been a time where you can kind of really lock in on basketball itself.”
One thing seems certain in these uncertain times, however: The NCAA is hell bent on holding the tournament this year. “Despite the challenges the pandemic continues to present to our country, March Madness will take place in 2021,” an email from the NCAA stated when announcing changes to the 2021 postseason. “The environment in which we live is drastically different, which means the tournament will clearly have a different feel to it, but we will safely conduct this event despite the obstacles we are facing.”
The NCAA is currently looking into the feasibility of holding the entire 2021 NCAA Tournament in the Indianapolis area. As of right now, there aren’t any changes around the size of the tournament or the dates, but the creation of a “bubble” of sorts in Indianapolis seems to be a positive sign that things will move forward. Now the question remains as to how many regular season games will be completed as COVID-19 cases continue to spike around the country.
Players like Kihei Clark are just trying to handle the extra precautions and stresses of this year as best they can. “You try to prepare as best as possible and just try to maintain your distance and just try to stay safe, just so you can be able to go out there and compete,” Clark stated. “So just trying to make sure your teammates are staying safe and make sure they’re following protocols. Anything can happen so we don’t really know what to expect.”
Despite the uncertainty, Clark mentioned that those protocols have actually brought the team closer together. When you can’t really do anything except be in your room, at practice, or hanging out with your teammates, that is to be expected. “We’re all around each other all the time and most of the guys live together,” Huff said with a smile. “We don’t really do a whole lot else, so we’re pretty confident that we’re being safe, but that being said, we still, you know, do our best to be safe, wear masks, wash our hands...that type of thing. Even when we’re around each other.”
After an offseason of challenges off the court, Virginia is ready for its first challenge on the court. The Hoos will play Maine next Wednesday, November 25, at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut. The multi-team event, dubbed “Bubbleville”, will also feature a game against the SEC’s Florida.
Virginia and Maine will tip off at 2pm, and the game will be streamed by FloHoops.