Walking around the east end of Penn's campus, you’ll hear cars driving by, construction noises, and even food sizzling on a flat-top grill. What you won’t hear is the sound of basketballs dribbling or sneakers squeaking on hardwood.
As the fall semester begins, Penn men’s basketball finds itself scattered across the country, trying to piece together preparation for an uncertain season. Coach Steve Donahue has been forced to come up with creative ways to keep this semester as normal as possible for his players through virtual meetings over Zoom, while the players are figuring out for themselves how to get in on-court work and weightlifting.
“One good thing about basketball — for the most part — you don’t need a lot. You need one person, a ball, a basket,” Donahue said.
Junior guard Griffin Ryan is one of about 10 players living near campus in West Philadelphia. Luckily, they have been able to find a few gyms in the city where they can play together in a safe environment, but finding places to work out has been challenging.
“[Keeping us in shape] has taken a bit more creativity, especially from our coaches,” Ryan said. “They have to create workouts that work for us even if we don’t have access to a full gym or even dumbbells in some cases.”
This creativity on behalf of the coaches has also extended to team meetings. Twice a week, the coaches hold positional meetings where they review offensive and defensive schemes, just as if they were in person at Penn. The only thing that has changed is the on-court component.
“We use a whiteboard and film and teach them that way just like we would if we were on the court,” Donahue said.
From the players’ perspectives, the meetings have been valuable, even if the situation is less than ideal.
“I think the virtual meetings have been pretty good; it’s a little tougher in terms of asking questions,” Ryan said.
As a junior, Ryan has experience on his side and can adapt more easily to the virtual coaching experience. The freshmen, on the other hand, need a lot more support from the coaching staff to get acclimated to a new team, a new level of play, and college life in general.
In addition to team meetings, Donahue holds one meeting per week with the freshmen over Zoom — not to talk basketball, but to check in on how their classes are going and how they’re adjusting to the new semester.
Despite the many challenges, the players believe that their coaches have done a great job bringing everyone up to speed.
“I think that our coaches have done a really good job keeping us informed, keeping us up to date on everything, and helping us along the way,” Ryan said.
Hanging over everything, however, is the uncertainty over whether the team will get to play basketball at all this year. When the Ivy League postponed all fall sports, that included all sports played in the fall semester, meaning basketball will not be played until at least Jan. 1.
Donahue is looking forward to an NCAA announcement coming on Sept. 16 about its plans for the upcoming basketball season to gauge what the Ivy League may be doing.
“I’m hopeful that if college basketball is going to be played that we’re going to be playing,” Donahue said.
The Ivy League has moved the fastest of any NCAA conference to cancel or postpone sports in response to COVID-19. Beyond continuing to prepare his team, Donahue has been involved with a group of coaches, facilities managers, doctors, and trainers around the Ivy League to come up with ideas based on the progression of the virus and potential treatments.
Donahue also believes there are a number of advantages the Ivy League has when it comes to playing during a pandemic. The small size of the Ivy League allows it to fit an entire conference schedule and crown a champion in a very short time, in addition to being able to travel between schools for games safely and without too much inconvenience.
Additionally, Donahue thinks that Penn has the advantage of being located near so many other Division I programs, so it can play non-conference games without having to stay overnight in hotels. Overall, he remains positive that his team will be playing basketball this year.
“I’m very optimistic that we’ll play basketball. When, what it will look like, I’m not sure,” Donahue said. “What we can control is to do as much as we can each day and have a good plan and get better and keep preparing for the season whenever it happens.”
The players have also adopted this mindset as they continue preparing for a potential season.
“I’m pretty optimistic," Ryan said. "You kind of have to remain optimistic."
Optimism won’t bring an end to COVID-19, but if the Ivy League can figure out a way to play sports while keeping all of its athletes, coaches, and support staff safe, the Quakers will be ready.