With the start of preseason practice Saturday, Georgia Tech’s basketball team didn’t have to wait long to realize that COVID-19 will have a significant impact on the season. The Yellow Jackets’ plans were interrupted that very day.
Learning just before the start of that first practice that one of his players was under the weather, coach Josh Pastner changed course and made that day’s practice non-contact, as well as the next two practices. While Pastner suspected that the player – whom he declined to identify – had not contracted the coronavirus, and a later test confirmed as much, he wanted to take precautions against the possibility. The player was kept away from practice, although his roommate was allowed to continue. The Yellow Jackets went through all three workouts with no body-to-body contact, meaning no 5-on-5, no jostling for rebounds, no dribbling against tight defensive pressure.
“We just didn’t want to take the chance,” Pastner said.
The consequences of practicing with a player who tests positive for COVID-19 are considerable. Given that basketball is played indoors with a small group that is concentrated in the confines of a court, the NCAA guidance for the sport is that if any player or staff member with regular, direct access to the team tests positive, “schools should consider” a 14-day quarantine for the entire team and personnel close to the team.
The practices’ non-contact format was a way to avoid the possibility of a quarantine. If the player – or his roommate – had tested positive, the Jackets would have been able to keep practicing because they wouldn’t have been considered at high risk of exposure. (Pastner could have kept the roommate out of practice, too, and held standard practices, but he said that, with other players also out, it wouldn’t have been worth it.)
However, had Pastner risked conducting standard practices that included the unwell player – and had he then tested positive – there would have been no practice for the next two weeks.
“That’s where you are in today’s climate as a coach,” Pastner told the AJC. “You’ve got to be thinking about those things as you coach. You have to be extremely flexible and agile and be able to adjust on the fly.”
Pastner figures that this will be how the season will go, barring changes to the contact-tracing guidelines.
“People get colds, they’re going to get sore throats that have nothing to do with COVID, but until COVID’s ruled out, you’re not going to be able to practice (in the usual way),” he said.
Pastner returned to contact workouts after the entire team tested negative. He sought to make the best of the situation in the interim. The team could work on skills that need improving, like ballhandling, passing and free-throw shooting.
“The one thing you can try to be is in really good shape,” he said. “That’s an area you can control.”
Pastner said he didn’t think of his team as having fallen behind the competition with three fewer contact practices. It’s just the way the season is going to be.
“That is a ’20-21 men’s basketball strategy for all of us,” he said. “Not just us, but for everybody.”
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution