To cope with COVID-19 protocol, Josh Pastner tries ‘unheard of' plan

Georgia Tech forward Moses Wright scored 17 points to go with eight rebounds, four assists and three blocks in the Yellow Jackets' 80-72 loss to Notre Dame February 1, 2020 at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Ind. (Fighting Irish Media)
Georgia Tech forward Moses Wright scored 17 points to go with eight rebounds, four assists and three blocks in the Yellow Jackets' 80-72 loss to Notre Dame February 1, 2020 at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Ind. (Fighting Irish Media)

Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner, whose dedication to procedure and safety with the coronavirus is such that he said his players have called him the “COVID-19 security guard,” intends to take a most unusual precaution this season.

Once the team begins thrice-weekly COVID-19 testing, Pastner said that he will run non-contact practices for the remainder of the season unless the NCAA’s contact-tracing guidance changes. That means no 5-on-5, no starters vs. scout team or any practice work where bodies are in close contact with one another.

“It’s unheard of,” Pastner said on a videoconference with media.

The driver of Pastner’s decision is the NCAA’s guidance on COVID-19 protocol for basketball teams, which is based on CDC recommendations. If any member of a team or “inner bubble” staff member tests positive, the NCAA has told schools that they should quarantine the entire team for 14 days.

Such an absence would be highly disruptive, obviously. A two-week quarantine and perhaps an extra week to regroup in practice might cost a team six games. If it were to happen twice, that could be almost half the 27-game schedule. It’s with reason that the NCAA lowered the minimum number of games that a team needs to play to be considered for this season’s NCAA tournament from the standard 25 to 13.

“Getting to even play 27 (games) would be one remarkable accomplishment this year, based on medical protocols and contact tracing,” he said.

By the protocol, any positive test would sideline anyone who has been in close contact with the player or staff member in the previous 48 hours. As a result, having contact practices on a daily basis would carry a risk as players and staff will be tested three times a week.

Tech would still be at risk of a team-wide quarantine if either a Yellow Jackets player or opponent tested positive inside of two days after a game. But the no-contact practice plan at least would minimize the risk of sidelining the entire team if a player or staff member tested positive after a practice.

Angelo Galante, Tech’s chief medical officer and a member of the ACC’s COVID-19 medical advisory group, sees the logic in Pastner’s practice plan. Better to bring a team to a game that hasn’t had contact practices than to not be able to show up at all.

“It doesn’t take a medical degree to figure that out,” Galante said. “I think what he’s doing makes sense from looking at what the medical advice is. The closer you are to somebody, the more your risk is. So if one person tests positive, the only way around that is to modify your practice. To me, that makes sense.”

At least at this juncture, Pastner may not have much company among colleagues.

“A lot of people are surprised when I tell them what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said.

The strategy does speak to Pastner’s concern for his players' health. Guard Jordan Usher jokingly called him a “menace” in the way that he has insisted that players' follow protocol.

“Some of it’s a little bit of luck, but a lot of it is doing the right things – not going out, staying away from people, and I think that’s what Josh’s position has been,” Galante said.

Forward Moses Wright said that when players gather in a dorm, they do so wearing masks.

“You can’t take any chances,” Wright said. “Even when we’re just in the room, we’re all masked up. Because we know how precious this season is.”

There’s no telling how Pastner’s plan will shape the season, one in which the Jackets are bent on making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010. Pastner is a believer in intense, physical practice to prepare players for games. Even the team’s shootarounds on the day of games are contact practices in which players have to get taped up because Pastner wants them to go through the session with game-like energy. The 1-3-1 zone defense that the Jackets have relied on is best learned and tweaked through repetition on the practice floor against an offense.

“But you need contact because you need to go against different variations or formations and different ways people try to attack it,” Pastner said. “Well, if you don’t have that opportunity to do that in contact, you’re just relying on film and a lot of that stuff.”

Pastner does have a roster that is better equipped to handle this sort of obstacle. Tech has four returning starters (Wright and guards Jose Alvarado, Michael Devoe and Usher) and two more returnees who logged at least 490 minutes of playing time (forward Khalid Moore and guard Bubba Parham). Of the six, Alvarado, Parham and Wright are seniors, Devoe and Moore juniors.

“That’s where you’re keeping your fingers crossed and praying that, with a veteran group, that’s going to give you your best chance because they’ve been through it,” Pastner said. “Those six guys have played a lot of minutes.”

Among coaches, there is a hope that the guidelines might be relaxed if gathered data supports it. But that likely would require the CDC to adjust its guidance, which may not be forthcoming.

In his perspective, Galante said that the CDC has offered guidance for the general public but not for subgroups for sports or basketball in specific, for that matter.

“And I think that’s well thought out,” he said. “Their approach is, we’ve got to deal with the country (as a whole).”

In a year requiring creative responses, another experiment begins at the Zelnak Basketball Center. The plan goes in place a week before the season opener, Nov. 25 against Georgia State at McCamish Pavilion. The first few non-contact practices have gone well, players have said.

“I don’t feel like it’s having as big an impact as I thought it was,” Wright said.

Devoe, the team’s leading returning scorer at 16 points per game, has approached it with his typical placidity.

“It’s going to be a lot of changes this season,” he said. “As far as practices – contact or non-contact – we just have to be ready to go.”

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