Deja vu: Like last year, NC Central’s season derailed by COVID

The Eagles are scheduled to return to the court on Saturday, their first game since Dec. 22

For the second straight season, NC Central coach LeVelle Moton has had to navigate his team through a prolonged shutdown due to COVID-19. (Karen Pulfer Focht / AP Photo)

Feb. 2 is still a couple of weeks away, but you can’t blame LeVelle Moton for feeling as if it’s already Groundhog Day.

That’s because, like Bill Murray in the movie of the same name, Moton and his NC Central basketball team are reliving the same recurring nightmare.

For the second year in a row, the Eagles have been forced to put their season on hold for a full month while dealing with an outbreak of positive COVID-19 cases.

“Last year we were really the poster child for COVID,” Moton said in a video to his team’s fans posted on social media this week. “We had to sit out 60-some days. That was a difficult and challenging year.

“Right before the Christmas break, it swept through our team at a rapid rate once again. Many guys were not allowed to return to campus while only a couple were. We’re just now getting everyone back up to speed.”

NCCU hasn’t played a game since losing to UTEP and Sam Houston State on consecutive nights at the Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational in El Paso, Texas, on Dec. 21-22.

It has since had four games either canceled or postponed, including the first three contests on its Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference schedule. The Eagles are the only MEAC team yet to play a league game.

Barring any further setbacks, for either team, they are set to return to the court Saturday for a game at Delaware State. They are also scheduled to play at Maryland-Eastern Shore next Monday before finally returning home to play Howard on Jan. 29, their first game at McDougald-McLendon Arena since Dec. 15.

“We’re looking forward to putting a great product on the floor,” Moton, who was not made available for an interview, said in his video. “Obviously, it’s going to be really challenging and difficult. But I just wanted you guys to hear from the horse’s mouth that our guys are back. We’re trying to practice, working extremely hard and they’re anxious to compete.”

If there’s any positive to the Eagles’ situation it’s that they’ve been through this before.

A year ago, they endured a 53-day pause around this same time of year, from Dec. 7 to Jan. 29. Then after winning three of their first five games after their return, their momentum was stunted again with a 15-day shutdown.

They finished the season playing only 14 games, going 5-9 and missing out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years.

NCCU is currently 6-9, but that record is deceiving since — like many MEAC schools — it uses its nonconference schedule as a means of generating revenue. Among its losses are road games at Memphis and Iowa, in addition to the two in El Paso.

The Eagles were picked to finish third behind Norfolk State and Morgan State in their conference’s preseason poll.

While Moton and the team’s returning players know what to expect because of the experience, it doesn’t make the task of starting back and jumping right into conference play any easier.

The most difficult obstacle will be conditioning. No matter how hard the team practices, the only way to get back into game shape is by playing.

That will leave NCCU at a severe disadvantage at least for its first few times out.

“We haven’t played basketball in a month while other teams are out here playing,” he said. “Basketball is a game of repetition and redundancy, and we’re looking forward to getting back on the floor.”

The NCCU coach asked his fans to keep his players in their “well wishes and healthy mind, spirits and bodies, because these young men are trying to prepare themselves after being faced with COVID several times. And it’s really a difficult thing.”

No makeup dates have been announced for any of the postponed conference games.

The Eagles’ women’s team has also had to deal with a lengthy COVID pause, missing out on a trip to Oregon State while going from Dec. 20 through Jan. 10 without playing.