Despite pandemic, spirits remain high for men’s basketball team

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First-year forward Dawson Garcia (33) high fives fellow first-year forward Justin Lewis (2) in a game against EIU on Nov. 27 (Photo courtesy of Marquette Athletics.)

In February of 1895, Hamline University played the University of Minnesota Agriculture School in the basement of a campus building using peach baskets as hoops. For the modern college basketball fan, that image is hard to picture. But 126 years ago, the thought of a global pandemic altering the game of college basketball every single day was probably pretty hard to imagine, too.

Over 130 men’s college basketball games have been canceled or postponed so far this season. Some programs — like Chicago State — elected to not even compete, and the Ivy League canceled the 2020-21 season completely.

The Marquette men’s basketball team has had two games postponed, both of which were conference matchups. The Golden Eagles were scheduled to play Villanova Jan. 8, but positive tests within the Wildcats’ program forced them to enter a 10-day quarantine. MU also had a game slated for Jan. 20 against Georgetown that had to be postponed due to COVID-19 related issues within the Hoyas’ program.

Meanwhile, DePaul missed its first 10 games due to positive cases within both their and opponents’ programs.

Players, coaches and support staff have had to expect the unexpected. For first-year forward Dawson Garcia, taking things day by day has been the key to staying focused.

Garcia said that just staying in the present and not worrying about the past or future is how the team has stayed mentally fit and prepared to play.

After a grueling first half of the season, all players in the program were able to go home to see their families. In a year where seeing family and friends has been limited, the 6-foot-11 forward from Prior Lake, Minnesota said it was good to be back for the holidays.

“It was definitely nice to get home (and) see some family and friends,” Garcia said.

As players attempt to navigate the unconventional season, coaching staff members have also been trying to find ways to keep players focused. Head coach Steve Wojciechowski said the pandemic has made things harder on a daily basis.

“The uncertainty that we’re all living in and how different it is from normal operating procedures make it a daily challenge to keep guys present and doing what we’re able to do today, because tomorrow’s not promised,” Wojciechowski said in a postgame press conference Jan. 12. “If I was to tell you that that’s easy every day, it would be a lie.”

Despite the challenges, Wojciechowski said his players have been handling things well.

“I think our guys have done a really good job of trying to embrace the things that we’ve asked them to embrace in terms of being safe, and being mindful, and having a good attitude each and every day,” Wojciechowski said in the Jan. 12 press conference.

Due to social distancing protocols, the team has had to find new ways to spend spare time when they are not playing, practicing or traveling.

“It’s a lot of time to yourself,” Garcia said. “But we’re all in the same hotel, so we do find ways to watch a game while social distancing and whatnot, and we’ll play Uno and just kind of do all types of things.”

When the team is together, they have also been vocal about how they are feeling regarding the pandemic. The coaching staff has made sure to orchestrate conversations that go beyond basketball.

“They’re (coaches) open to a lot of conversations where we can just speak our mind,” Garcia said. “We also have … different activities as a team where we eat together and what not — we can just kind of say how we’re feeling and talk to each other.”

The Golden Eagles have nine games left on their schedule. Makeup dates for the postponed games against Villanova and Georgetown have yet to be announced. The BIG EAST Tournament is also scheduled to begin March 10 at Madison Square Garden and March Madness is slated to start March 18. Although basketball has been able to offer somewhat of an escape from the virus that has taken the lives of over 400,000 Americans, Wojciechowski said the pandemic is not something to look past.

“It’s a daily challenge,” Wojciechowski said in the Jan. 12 press conference. “It’s a big thing, it’s not a little thing, and again, we’re not the only team going through it.”

This story was written by Nick Galle. He can be reached at nicholas.galle@marquette.edu or on Twitter @thenickgalle