Prairie View basketball coach Bryon Smith knew the 2020-21 season would be imaginatively different based on how the previous one concluded.
Rewind nine months.
The Panthers were preparing to play in the SWAC Tournament in Birmingham, Ala. The team hotel was booked. Pre and postgame meals had been setup. All that was left to do was practice and play.
But everything came to a sudden halt when the SWAC announced the remainder of the league tournament would be canceled because of growing concern over the novel coronavirus that had yet to be declared a pandemic but forced the NBA to suspend its season and the NCAA to cancel March Madness.
“I was a lot like the commissioner (Dr. Charles McClelland) in that we needed to halt play and shut the tournament down,” Smith told HBCU Sports Tuesday. “I didn’t want to be the last man standing playing our conference tournament when everyone else was erring on the side of caution.”
Fast-forward to December and the COVID-19 situation has not improved. In fact, despite the arrival of much-needed vaccines, the pandemic — at least in the United States — has gotten worse.
And the Panthers basketball program has been one of several HBCUs to experience the brunt of it.
Since it started its regular season the day before Thanksgiving, Prairie View has already been sequestered twice due to internal COVID-19 issues.
Earlier this month, the team missed the final two games of the so-called Louisville bubble after an unidentified player tested positive for the virus.
Some 17 days later, Prairie View once again was forced to temporarily suspend operations due to what was described as “COVID-19 issues at Prairie View,” according to a statement released by the University of Missouri, which had to cancel its Dec. 18 game against the Panthers.
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Prairie View’s official record to date is 1-3. However, they’ve endured four cancelations so far that have left Smith in a difficult position to respond to a wave of uncertainty and challenges.
“You always have to preface it by saying if you have a chance to get on the court tomorrow or seven o’clock on Saturday or two o’clock, this is what we need to be prepared for,” he said. “It is difficult as a coach not being able to prepare as you normally would.”
In a year that has been anything but normal, there is normalcy in that Prairie View is not alone.
As of Tuesday, 56 games involving HBCU Division 1 programs have either been canceled or postponed as a result of coronavirus-related issues, including Jan. 2 and Jan. 4 games involving Alcorn State, Southern and Texas Southern due to a positive test within the Texas Southern program.
In the MEAC, Kevin Broadus, head coach at Morgan State, has tried to make sure his club stays upbeat and engaged in the midst of a season where three games have been lost to COVID-19.
“I’ve tried to make them (the players) turn a negative into a positive,” said Broadus, whose group recently had its Wednesday game against Towson wiped from the schedule. “We just have to be ready for the next (game). We’re just in the gym every day trying to get better. That’s what we do.”
To stay COVID-19 free and compliant with CDC, school and league safety protocols, Morgan State, said the longtime coach, follows mask and social distancing mitigation measures during basketball-related activities.
And with only five official games played, there leaves a lot more time to teach the lessons of basketball and life, said Broadus.
“So we come in every day and we try to condition our minds and our bodies to control what we can control,” he said. “We can’t control a pandemic or a disease. We can’t control who gets it and who doesn’t get it. We only control what’s in front of us when we are in control of ourselves.”
For North Carolina A&T coach Will Jones, this season will test — in his opinion — the mettle of coaches.
“This is what we get paid for,” said Jones. “The leadership piece of our job is to try to help everybody in the program reach their goals. During this time, this pandemic has really put that at a higher priority because the guys are dealing with so much.”
That involves, said Jones, the mental health aspect, the uncertain schedules or athletes not being “able to function as a college athlete or young adult.”
“I think coaches across the country really need to be looked at in high esteem in managing those things during this time, to be honest with you,” he said.
While Jones and others are attempting to juggle plates during what has been the most treacherous obstacle course in the history of college basketball, the men leading programs can’t account for his when, or even if, games will be played as the season progresses.
Sounding the alarm on the state of play with COVID-19 in recent weeks have been prominent head coaches. Some, like Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Pittsburgh head coach Jeff Capel, have expressed maybe it isn’t such a good idea to compete in the midst of a pandemic.
Smith, who was on board with the SWAC deciding to take a measured, responsible approach before returning to play, would be open to ceasing games for the remainder of the season in the event Prairie View is once again hit with COVID-19.
“I’d be honest … if we had to shut down for 10 days or more, I probably would be in favor of just shutting the season down for the rest of the year and getting ready for next season,” said Smith. “I would love to suggest (that) to our administration and the conference office.”