COVID-19 Hamstrings UT Men’s Basketball for a Year; Then Came Turnovers
By Thomas Galindo
The University of Texas mens’ basketball program has had quite the year. Their 2019-2020 season was cut short by the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. A year later, after battling through the pandemic, their 2020-2021 season was ended by something much more in their control: turnovers.
In March 2020, going into the Big 12 Conference tournament, they were desperate to win games to add to their resume in hopes of making the NCAA Tournament. But, less than an hour before their first conference game against Texas Tech, the entire postseason was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Walk-on forward on the team Blake Nevins said this was a disappointment for the team.
“At that point, I feel like a lot of guys had got focused on the game,” Nevins said. “Then we got taken off and sent to the locker room and the athletic director comes in and tells us the season is most likely over. We were all like ‘woah, what’s going on?’”
Coming into the 2020-2021 men’s basketball season, the Longhorns were projected to be a much improved team from the year before, with high hopes of postseason success. But following a season with no postseason tournaments, and the COVID-19 pandemic still in full-effect, this season was going to be an uphill battle.
Walk-on guard on the team Andrew Deutser said there were a bunch of new protocols for players to follow throughout the season.
“For two weeks before the season, I had to do a COVID test every two days. Once all those were negative I could join the team,” Deutser said. “We had tracking devices we had to wear to make sure we weren’t in close contact with people. When the season started we ramped up COVID testing from once a week to three times a week, sometimes four.”
But, all of these protocols weren’t 100% effective. Midway through the season, when the team was ranked top 5 in the country, then-Head Coach Shaka Smart and a few players contracted COVID-19, causing the team to play shorthanded a few times, a number of games got cancelled, and the team went 19 days without practicing.
“You definitely noticed a slump,” Nevins said. “Obviously missing the coach and players makes a big difference. But, even when they came back, we weren’t able to practice for a while. It completely stopped the momentum and chemistry. It took us a while to come close to what we had going before then.”
Going into the 2021 Big 12 Conference tournament, the Longhorns had won four of their last five games, and were ranked third in the conference. After winning their first round game against Texas Tech, their second round matchup was cancelled because a player on Kansas’ team contracted COVID-19. This would automatically send the Longhorns to the championship game, where they knocked off Oklahoma State.
“The end of the season is definitely hard,” Deautser said. “The guys were happy to get a day off and get the bodies rested and have that advantage against Oklahoma State. People are going to look back and be like ‘this was the hardest year to win something.’”
After the conference tournament, Texas would head to Indianapolis for the NCAA tournament. This year, the tournament was held entirely in Indiana to reduce player’s exposure to COVID-19. This tournament bubble differed from past years where the tournament is typically held in cities all over the country.
“It was very strict,” Nevins said. “You had to quarantine upon arrival. If you were going anywhere except your team room in the hotel, you had to be escorted by a guide. You got COVID tested every day, and we couldn’t go outside for the first few days. It wasn’t too exciting. There wasn’t any big events or fun things to do.”
Unfortunately for the Longhorns, they did not meet their postseason aspirations, and in typical March Madness fashion, were upset by lower seeded Abilene Christian University in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Texas tallied 23 turnovers, nine more than their average per game. They also scored 52 points, which is 23 per game less than their season average. But, even with the disappointment, the players were glad they got to see their season through a year after having it cut short.
“It’s great to win and we wish we could have continued to win,” Deutser said. “But, I know that last year I wished I was somewhere playing in the NCAA Tournament. The fact that exactly a year later, the biggest collegiate tournament is happening is just a great thing. We’re one step closer to things returning to normal.”
Audio by Haley Riley