Coaches are happy to be back, even with masks
Some winter sports athletes are going to need to continue to wear masks once preseason practice begins next week.
The CIAC issued its winter sports plan Monday. Masks will remain worn for both basketball and hockey players until the winter sports break begins shortly before Christmas. The regular season doesn’t begin until Dec. 13 for some sports, Dec. 16 for others.
Basketball coaches are resigned to the fact that the protocols are remaining the same when practice begins next week.
“I’m not surprised,” Kolbe Cathedral boys coach John Pfohl said. “I think we all have to be prepared for the worst and hope for the best and hopefully, we can get past Dec. 23. But the (COVID) numbers will dictate that and we all know that.”
Pfohl did find it interesting that not every sport was under the same mask policy.
“How do you have a wrestler without a mask on and not a basketball player?” Pfohl said. “I would have liked it (the policy) to be universal. If you say, ‘Follow this,’ then that’s what you should be following. I’m surprised we are singled out a little bit.”
The extra month will provide more time for unvaccinated winter sports athletes to get vaccinated.
“We all took the vaccine, which I sacrificed for my players, because I didn’t want to do it, but I did it to coach my kids,” said Dave Cornish, who enters his first season at Norwich Free Academy after a long stretch at Ledyard. “Now
chance to ramp it up a bit and play some tougher competition and I think we’re ready for it. So I’m happy.”
UConn practiced for two hours Tuesday, splitting that block of time between Imperial Arena, where games are held, and a ballroom a few hundred steps away.
The Battle 4 Atlantis, in its 10th year, is big-time college basketball with a certain feel and a lot to get used to. There’s a holiday that is going to be a game day and roughly 1,200 daily distractions at this glitzy and pricey resort 1,200 miles from home.
“It’s a beautiful place,” said freshman guard Jordan Hawkins, who had 11 points on 5-for-8 shooting against Binghamton. “It’s my first time out of the country, actually.”
Hurley wants players to enjoy the trip and unique environment, particularly freshman and sophomores who were robbed of such experiences as high school seniors and college freshmen due to COVID. Still, UConn is trying to prepare for the Auburn game the same way it would prepare for a game in Hartford or Storrs.
“At the end of the day it’s a business trip,” guard Andre Jackson said. “We’re here to play basketball. So I’m not too focused on going to the water slides or anything like that. I’m more just focused on trying to beat Auburn. They play really hard. They’re really athletic. They can match us
on that level. It’s going to be a really good game. Both are really hard-nosed teams. A fun game to watch, definitely intense. Definitely want to challenge ourselves as much as possible and this is a really good team with high-level players. It’s good to see how you match up against teams like this.”
UConn has looked sharp in disposing Central Connecticut, Coppin State, Long Island and, for the most part, Binghamton — though Hurley was frustrated with that performance, particularly the defense.
“I’m always on edge,” Hurley said. “I always think we’re going to lose no matter who we play. I think it keeps my teams always on edge because I don’t take any games for granted. I saw a lot of things in the way we played Saturday that will take a wrecking ball to our chances of winning if we do it again.”
Auburn is led by sophomore guard Wendell Green Jr. (11.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3 assists) and freshman forward Jabari Smith (13.3 points, nine rebounds). Reserve guard K.D. Johnson, a sophomore, leads the Tigers in scoring at 15 points a game.
“Unbelievable positional size, a potential top five draft pick, top three draft pick,” Hurley said. “You know, just all types of frontcourt size and athleticism. And we talked about, you know, we’ve got eight starters, or we love our nine-man rotation. I mean, they’re deep, and bringing somebody like Johnson off the bench who is as good as anybody on the court. They’re a team that I think can make a deep, deep run. They’re very deep at every position with quality. So we’re looking at like you’re playing against a team that potentially can make and Elite Eight or a Final Four.”
Auburn coach Bruce
Pearl is impressed with UConn, mentioning an offense that runs through the interior and is complemented by athletic perimeter players. He is particularly impressed by Adama Sanogo, who is averaging 15.8 points and 6.3 rebounds.
“His improvement,” Pearl said. “We loved him in high school, too. We recruited him a little bit, got to know him. I’m happy for his success.”
Said Tigers forward Walker Kessler: “They’re an extremely physical team, an older team, so obviously getting on the glass is going to be huge for us, just punching them first, is probably the main thing for us . ... (Sanogo) is very skilled, physical, uses body well. You have to respect him and he’s skilled, but just play hard and well.”
Sanogo had 20 points in each of the first two games. He had 11 against LIU and 12 against Binghamton.
“He’s going to have to play a big-time game for us to win,” Hurley said. “Your best players have to play great to win games like this. You all-conference level players have to play all-conference level basketball and we have to get contributions across the board. And we’re going to have to be incredibly tough because they played really hard. The way that they play negates the advantage we have over most teams in that we’re one of the hardest working teams in the country.”