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Despite pandemic interruptions, HBCU basketball teams playing and preparing for conference tournaments

Over the next three weeks, the CIAA, SIAC, MEAC and SWAC enter postseason play

Despite playing one full season during the coronavirus pandemic, it hasn’t made it any easier for coaches at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to navigate. North Carolina Central head coach LeVelle Moton has firsthand experience of how COVID-19 spikes can affect the season.

Last season, the Eagles paused for approximately 60 days due to the pandemic, including a six-week hiatus. They played 14 games. Fifteen games into this season, the Eagles were once again forced to pause for four weeks and postponed their first three conference games, the longest hiatus for a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference men’s basketball team this season.

Men’s and women’s basketball teams in the MEAC, Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) have canceled or postponed approximately 70 games between Dec. 15 and Feb. 5 due to COVID-19 problems in one or both programs. The CIAA and SIAC canceled their 2020-21 seasons due to the pandemic. There have been fewer than 10 cancellations total in the last 30 days.

“We canceled last year. This time last year was heartbreaking because we had already canceled in the fall, then we canceled our basketball tournament and then it just kept going on,” CIAA commissioner Jacqie McWilliams. “But we’ve been committed, our board has committed that we will all do what we had to do [for] our institutions and campuses within our championships to prepare for this year.”

For Moton, just getting to the MEAC tournament will be an accomplishment.

“I don’t think there’s not a program in the country that’s been affected by COVID the way we have since it started,” Moton said of the program’s issues during the pandemic. “Most of the teams when they get hit by it, they canceled their season. We didn’t cancel our last year, We kept going through and it just affected us over and over again. And again this year, so, you know it’s tough.”

Moton said his approach to players returning is extremely sensitive because of his memories of seeing former basketball players Hank Gathers and childhood friend Victor Harris collapse on the court. Practices have consisted of three-man weaves and conditioning to help returning players gradually work their way back into shape.

“Everyone thinks just because this kid called COVID on the 10th then on the 15th, you’ll be OK. No, this stuff affects everyone’s body differently. It’s really difficult after being out for 30 days,” Moton said. “As for the guys who had tested positive, we worked them in gradually back into lineup. Strength and conditioning are the most critical aspects of maintaining during the season. We couldn’t even lift a weight. I had to do my part in understanding and being able to manage their bodies right now.”

Coach Kenneth Blakeney and the Howard Bison, who canceled last season after five games, have dealt with their share of pandemic-related issues this season. Like the Eagles, the Bison have the same issues regarding player availability. Top priorities for Blakeney and staff have been player safety and maintaining their mental health. During the pause, the team relied on Zoom calls during the quarantine period.

“I think that I might have not understood the mental challenge that our student-athletes face. Thankfully, we do work with a sports psychologist that is very connected to our team. We do have those kinds of outlets,” Blakeney said. “I think our guys may have an unbelievable relationship with one another. We had Zoom [calls] and with our Zooms we’re talking and staying connected. I would take opportunities to reach out and try to touch base with everybody as much as I can. I think that was a big part of our guys feeling like they had something to look forward to.”

Blakeney and the Bison are finding their rhythm during conference play. The Bison canceled three non-conference games against Yale, Hampton, and Penn, but returned in time for their conference opener against Norfolk State on Jan. 15. The Bison (11-10, 5-3 MEAC) are currently one game under .500 for the season but are eyeing their first winning season in Blakeney’s three-year tenure as head coach.

“We’ve played three conference games so far. We have another 10 or 12, games left, that’s all coming within the next month. So, it’s going to happen fast,” Blakeney said. “We’re trending in a way where we may possibly have a winning season, if we’re fortunate enough and continue to do the things that we’re doing. To be trending in that direction, if we can continue to stay healthy and buy into the things we need to do to stay grounded within the foundation of our basketball, that may happen.

“We’re excited about the rest of our season, and I really feel like we’re about at a place right now that we are conditioningwise. Mentally, we are back to where we were before we had our pause with COVID.”

While COVID-19 ravaged some programs, teams such as the SWAC’s Southern men’s basketball are having a healthy season uninterrupted by the disease, which had made head coach Sean Woods very grateful.

“We’ve been fortunate [that] we haven’t been hit with it. Our whole team is 100% vaccinated, plus got boosters and all that, so the rules kind of run in our favor because you only have to quarantine for five days and don’t test unless you have symptoms,” Woods said. “We’ve been great as far as taking care of bodies, taking vitamins and staying out of the public as much as we possibly can.

“[We’re] just really concentrating on basketball, because we feel like we have a special team and we don’t want to allow anything to interrupt what we’re doing. So the guys are actually bought into not hanging out and doing the right thing,” Woods said. “So, we’re still keeping our fingers crossed because there’s still some season left to go, but it’s been a total team effort trying to stay away and staying healthy as far as this virus is concerned.”

Without any interruptions, Southern is ranked No. 1 in the SWAC with a 9-3 conference record. Another team reaping the benefits of a healthy season is Virginia Union, which currently sits at the top of the Northern Division standings at 10-3 in conference play for the CIAA ahead of the CIAA tournament Feb. 21-26 in Baltimore. For Virginia Union coach Jay Butler, playing during the pandemic is new after CIAA play was canceled last season. In his first season navigating through the pandemic, he’s taken a page from professional sports teams by trying to form a team bubble.

With COVID-19 cases lessening because of the declining effect of the omicron variant, schools and conferences are hoping to finish their regular seasons and move on to their tournaments.

“We’ve been blessed. We try to preach to the guys at all times, be aware of where you’re going, try to stay together and social distance. We try to almost keep ourselves in a bubble, without actually being in a bubble,” Butler said. “The guys have been pretty much healthy after being off for a year. All 15 guys have contributed to the team this year, and helped us win games.”

As teams regain their health and continue into conference play, conference administrators are cautiously monitoring COVID-19 trends ahead of SWAC and MEAC tournaments that are March 9-12 in Birmingham, Alabama, and Norfolk, Virginia, respectively. The SIAC men’s and women’s tournaments will be held Feb. 28 through March 5 in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

“I think the teams are doing the best that they can, but sometimes you can do the best that you can, and it’ll sneak up on you anyways,” said MEAC commissioner Sonja Stills. “The variant is so contagious, and it has affected a couple of our teams earlier in the season. I think with the protocols that we put in place across the conference, we hope that [teams] will stay healthy as we move forward through the season.

“We are praying hard and staying steadfast in believing that the protocols that we have in place will help us have a healthy and safe MEAC tournament for not only our student-athletes, but for the fans as well.”

The Eagles have won three out of the last four MEAC men’s tournament championships. North Carolina Central finished its first two conference games with victories over Delaware State and Maryland Eastern Shore on Jan. 22 and Jan. 24. The Eagles are currently second in MEAC conference standings with a 5-2 record. Despite rehabbing from soft-tissue injuries because of extended time without playing basketball, the team is hoping to finish strong and rebound from the lost practice time heading into the tournament.

“This is a game that’s predicated on repetition, so you have to have valuable practice time to do that. It’s tough now because we don’t really get practice time,” Moton said. “[Execution] is what I want to see us improve upon, because the most disciplined team that executes the best in March is the team that wins.”

Mia Berry is the senior HBCU writer for Andscape and covers everything from sports to student-led protests. She is a Detroit native (What up Doe!), long-suffering Detroit sports fan and Notre Dame alumna who randomly shouts, "Go Irish."