UBC Thunderbirds' head men's basketball coach Kevin Hanson is planning for a 2020-21 season he knows will be filled with unique challenges. (Photo by Richard Lam property of UBC athletics)
Feature University Men's Basketball

UBC men’s basketball: Pandemic may have nixed UCLA Bruins visit to War Gym, yet despite uncertain times, ‘Birds plan with hope!

VANCOUVER — The Canada West’s winter conference seasons had a start date late enough to dodge the hammer of COVID-19 cancellations which fell hard last week on its fall sports cousins in football, men’s and women’s soccer, field hockey and women’s rugby 15s

Yet with the deadline for official word on a best-case Jan. 1 conference start for men’s and women’s basketball, hockey and volleyball set at any time up-to-and-including Oct. 8, equal helpings of faith and contingency planning may prove to be the best and wisest courses of action.

Despite the challenges and the unknowns which lay ahead, however, the UBC Thunderbirds’ men’s basketball team — whose season-opener had originally been planned for Aug. 25th against the visiting UCLA Bruins — let its head coach know last week that they were excited nonetheless about potentially returning for what will be a truncated conference season (16 games, perhaps fewer), even if it means having to stand at the ready.

“We had a team Zoom meeting last Monday (June 8) when we found out that Oct. 8 was going to be the new deadline for January 1, and all of the guys still want to come back in September,” said ‘Birds head coach Kevin Hanson, despite the fact the university, along with others around the province, has said that its majority of its fall classes would likely to be held via on-line teaching. “We don’t even know if they can be going or not, but they want to come back and they want to be together. Whatever Dr. Bonnie Henry says is what we will do, but I was just excited that our guys were excited to be together.”

While UBC will conduct its larger-sized classes via on-line teaching this fall, smaller-sized classes are potentially happening in-person while observing all details of safety guidelines.

Each faculty, however, is still clarifying what classes would be conducted on-line and what classes would happen in-person.

“You play team sports for different reasons but the guys are there for camaraderie, for the love of the game and to be with a group that shares a common goal,” added Hanson. “We’re all chomping at the bit to get going, as are our athletes, but in the end, it’s 100 per cent about the safety. And 100 per cent of the decisions will be based on the health and safety of our student-athletes.”

And what that adds up to for Canada West basketball, hockey and volleyball is the challenging state of extended idle.

Before the pandemic hit, there was plenty of excitement building within the program, ranks for an announcement that UCLA, one of the most storied program’s in men’s college basketball history, was set for a visit to War Memorial Gymnasium.

“That game is of course now cancelled, but we’re hoping it exists a year from now because it was their foreign tour,” said Hanson.

NCAA teams can take foreign tours every four years, not only allowing them to play additional games outside of the U.S., but to gain 10 extra days of practice with its entire team, including incoming freshmen.

UBC men’s basketball was also in discussions with several other Div. 1 programs for exhibition games, including Oregon.

“They are not going overseas because of the fears of COVID,” he said of top U.S. programs. “But right now, with the borders being closed, they might not have been allowed anyways. It was going to be a pretty substantial August for us, with lots of Div. 1 games because teams weren’t going to go to Italy.”

There is still a chance, however, that UBC and several other B.C.-based Canada West teams will enjoy an opportunity to play exhibition games in the window leading up to a potential Jan. 1 conference-wide tip-off.

Hanson said the most current development has UBC, along with some other B.C.-based conference rivals, investigating the possibility of playing two-to-four games in a tournament format against teams from NCAA Div. 1’s Big Sky Conference in early November. Like Canada West, the Big Sky last month reduced the number of conference games its member basketball schools would play from 20 to 16 games.

“If the borders are open, even though there are no conference games in first semester, we are permitted to play exhibition games,” said Hanson.

“We’re putting feelers out down in the (U.S.),” added Hanson. “Because the kids are on-line, we could go for a month, and if we get guarantees to cover our costs we could be on the road for a month playing all of these games, and have one of the toughest schedules we’ve ever had playing Division 1 or Division 2 schools.”

It’s an idea, however, that will have to sit in a state of idle.

“So right now, again, that is all on hold, but at least we’re talking about it, in case it happens,” Hanson says. “We do have a plan in place, but it’s based on so many factors. It’s loose conceptually, but we’re trying to make the best of the situation.”

There’s also nothing concrete about what the conference schedule might look like, should the Canada West season open in January.

“It might be another modified version that comes out,” said Hanson, eluding to the fact that Canada West, back on May 11, had proposed a 16-game schedule, down from the usual 20 games, which saw B.C.’s seven member schools playing exclusively against each other in conference play.

With a much later start date, however, it was not known how many games would constitute the 2021 conference season.

If teams played every weekend without a bye, they could complete a 16-game schedule by Feb. 20, putting the conference just one week behind its normal schedule.

In the end, however, just having dates and goals to work towards was something the coach agreed was good for the players.

“That would be huge because you worry about the mental health of your student-athletes,” Hanson said. “I think even the possibility of a schedule can be exciting and keep them in a positive mindset, and give them a reason to keep training. Having something to look forward to is important.”

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