COVID spike, cancellations have college hoop coaches concerned

Duke and UNC were among the many teams nationwide that were forced to juggle their schedules this weekend because of pandemic-related protocols

Wake Forest basketball coach Steve Forbes shouts instructions to his team during a game earlier this season (PJ Ward-Brown/North State Journal)

Steve Forbes is usually the life of the party, a fact he reinforced recently by showing up to a postgame media session wearing a string of blinking Christmas lights around his neck.

But Friday, shortly after his Wake Forest basketball team beat Charlotte on a dramatic buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Isaiah Mucius, the normally fun-loving coach dialed down the celebration by delivering some sobering advice to his players regarding the sudden spike in COVID-19 outbreaks.

“I just talked to them in the locker room about it,” Forbes said following the 82-79 victory at Charlotte’s Spectrum Center. “We’ve got to look after each other. We’ve got to make good decisions, mask up when we can, keep socially distant when we can.”

Forbes’ Deacons have been lucky so far, playing their first 12 games this season without interruption. But given the events of the past weekend, there’s no guarantee how long that luck will continue to hold.

While Wake Forest and Charlotte – along with NC State, East Carolina, Liberty and Richmond – were able to complete their quadrupleheader as part of the Basketball Hall of Fame Shootout, at least eight other games nationwide were either canceled, postponed or forced to be rescheduled because one or both teams weren’t able to participate.

North Carolina ended up playing Kentucky as part of the CBS Sports Classic in Las Vegas because both of their planned opponents, UCLA and Ohio State, are dealing with COVID protocols.  

Duke also had to juggle its schedule, going through a pair of cancellations in the span of three days before finally taking on Elon in a hastily arranged matchup on Saturday.

Given the rise in cases associated with the Omicron variant, even among those that have been vaccinated, more scheduling challenges are all but a certainty in the coming days.

It’s a possibility that concerns NC State coach Kevin Keatts almost as much as his team’s lack of experience at the center position without injured star Manny Bates.

“Right now we’re fortunate enough to be playing but every time I pick up my phone, somebody else is not playing,” Keatts said. “I’m scared, I want our guys to continue to play and I want our guys to have the opportunity to play.”

Forbes is even more motivated to keep his players on the court. No one in the country was affected more adversely by the pandemic last season than his Deacons.

The disrputions began almost as soon as he was hired, when he was forced to assemble a roster without the benefit of home visits. He didn’t get to meet his players in person until just before the start of preseason practice and then after playing just two games, activities were shut down for a full month because of a COVID.

Wake never recovered, at least from a basketball standpoint, stumbling to a 6-16 (3-15 ACC) record. 

“It’s hard because that killed the chemistry for a new program last year because we couldn’t be together,” Forbes said.

This year’s team, with the advantage of a full, normal offseason to blend four transfers, an incoming class of freshmen and a core of returners into a cohesive unit, is off to an 11-1 start heading into the bulk of their conference schedule.

“These guys, you can tell they like each other a lot, but we’ve spent a lot of time together off the court,” their coach said. “It bothers me that there’s kids that want to play games and can’t play these games across the country. 

“It’s just exploded a little bit the last 24 hours, so yeah, I’m mindful of it and we’ve got to be vigilant in what we do. Or maybe we can just start playing games out on the football field, I don’t know.”

A more realistic option, suggested by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, is an increase in COVID testing throughout college basketball. He also called for a change to the current ACC policy forcing teams to forfeit if they are unable to play conference games because of positive tests.

“This can get screwy quick. It’s already kind of screwy,” Krzyzewski said during his postgame comments after his team’s 87-56 win against Elon. “I would personally like to go back, like last year, we wanted to make sure everyone that we played was tested. We don’t have that mandate now. I don’t like the forfeit thing, either.”

While Krzyzewski, Forbes and their fellow coaches are concerned with the logistics and protocols associated with this latest chapter in the ongoing COVID saga, their players are trying their best to stay focused on practicing, playing and keeping things as normal as possible. 

“It’s definitely been a little stressful because COVID’s back out there. It never left but it’s for sure out there now,” Duke freshman Trevor Keels said. 

“There’s only so much you can do about it,” Blue Devils teammate Mark Williams added. “Obviously, we’re seeing all the cancellations going on around the country, but you just control what you can control and play when you can play.”