By John Bohnenkamp
Iowa’s men’s basketball team tightened the circle in October.
Before the Hawkeyes started practice, they met with one goal in mind — get through the season.
College basketball seasons are long enough, with plenty of unpredictability.
But this was the season in the COVID-19 pandemic, when one positive test could derail any momentum.
Which is why the Hawkeyes decided to close their environment.
Go to the gym. Go home. Don’t go anywhere in between. No family. No friends.
“We had a meeting on what it’s going to be like,” center Luka Garza said. “We had to make sure that you’re going home, and you’re coming to the gym, and that’s all you’re doing. We can hang out with each other, but we can’t hang out with other people, we can’t see family.
“It’s different. But you have to be able to understand what your priority is — to play in March, to play all of our games. That’s the priority. In order to do that, you have to be smart, you have to be careful. You can’t be going out, you can’t be walking around downtown. You can’t put yourselves in a position where you potentially could get sick.”
“We said we’re going to focus on basketball,” guard Jordan Bohannon said. “We’re not going to go outside, go downtown, go see people, go see our friends, go see our families. We said we’re going to be focused on this team throughout the entire season.”
With that, though, came a social cost. And as college basketball heads into its postseason tournaments, there has been concern about the mental state of players and coaches.
“Right now, it’s more of a mental thing rather than physical,” Western Illinois coach Rob Jeter said last week as the Leathernecks prepared for the conference tournament. “I don’t think teams are physically as worn out as they are this time of the season. But mentally, these student-athletes have been through a lot.
“I don’t know if I could have gone to college in this time, not being able to hang out, not being able to have a little fun, all of the things these guys are missing.”
It wasn’t just the isolation. There was always the concern that someone on the team could test positive for COVID-19. And even if your program was clean, your opponent may have a positive test, and all of the sudden that game you’ve been preparing for has been postponed or cancelled.
“It’s very taxing mentally,” Western Illinois forward Will Carius said. “You were going week to week not going if you’re going to play, not knowing if someone, God forbid, might catch the COVID. Luckily, we had a pretty clean year.”
“It’s definitely been a lot more mentally tiring than probably past seasons again,” Western Illinois women’s basketball player Grace Gilmore said. “But it’s also, on the other hand, has been a good mental challenge. It’s kept you on your toes and guessing, because you never know what’s going to happen, or if you’re going to have a game.
“It’s controlling what you can control, and not getting upset when a game gets canceled.”
Iowa’s men’s team came into the season as a contender for not just the Big Ten title, but the NCAA tournament championship as well. The Hawkeyes did have their schedule shuffled because of COVID-19 protocols within other programs, but made it through the regular season without any internal issues.
“It’s a lot different,” Garza said. “It’s harder, mentally, on every basketball player, because there’s no distractions. You go home, you go to the gym. That’s it. There’s nothing else. There’s no escape.”
“Because we haven’t had any positives, it’s a testament to the guys in the locker room sacrificing a lot, and not going outside their social distancing circles,” Bohannon said. “It has been tough.”
Jeter, in his first year with the Leathernecks, was unable to have offseason workouts because of protocols on campus, and even the preseason workouts were disjointed.
Western Illinois went 7-15, and some of the early-season struggles were because the Leathernecks were getting an on-court education on what they should have been learning behind the scenes in practice in the summer and fall.
Western Illinois had a five-game winning streak in February, then lost its last three games.
“All that ugliness was played out in front of everyone,” Jeter said. “That’s uncomfortable for these kids. You’re starting, you’re not starting, you have to be pulled out for this and that, you’re being corrected on the court in front of everyone. It’s been difficult. I think our group has really shown some toughness and some resiliency to keep balanced.
“A decision had to be made. Do we prepare this team to just win games, or do we prepare this team to start building the standards and the culture of the program? And to do that, sometimes you have to sacrifice wins early. You have to sacrifice looking pretty sometimes, and losing some games that can look very ugly early. I think we made that decision early that we were going to help them win games once we felt we had our standards and our culture set. We didn’t want to have to go back and set the culture again in the spring.”
Western Illinois’ women’s team lost seven of its first eight games. But the Leathernecks went 6-8 to close the regular season, reaching the semifinals before losing to Omaha on Monday.
“You feel like you’re doing all of this with the protocols, and sacrificing so much, just to get to play,” coach JD Gravina said. “And then playing is not fun, and you’re not playing well and you’re not getting better. It would have been easy to pack it in, either literally — quit and say it’s not worth it — or mentally, just kind of go through the motions. I’m just proud of this team for not doing that.”
Iowa will take its circle to Indianapolis for the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA tournament.
A season with so much unpredictability is ending.
“We’re a group that would do whatever it took to play all of our games,” Garza said.
Photo: Iowa and North Carolina tip off in a game in early December. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)