There is still a lot Pat Duquette does not know about the 2020-21 college basketball season. One thing the University of Massachusetts-Lowell head coach does know, is that his players have embraced the challenge of a season filled with unknowns.
“Practices have been upbeat and competitive,” he said. “I think everybody’s just anxious to know what the season is going to look like, because we still really don’t know at this point.”
Duquette and his staff have been working with River Hawks players for a while. Full practices started back on Oct. 14.
“We haven’t had any COVID cases, so that’s good,” Duquette said in an interview with The Eagle. “No injuries, so we’re healthy. We’ve got more size and depth than we’ve had in recent years. We have 14 guys.”
The River Hawks, who were 13-19 in Duquette’s seventh year, are a pretty young bunch. Of the 14 players on the Lowell roster, only four of them are considered upperclassmen. There are two juniors, one senior and one graduate transfer.
One of the juniors is Pittsfield’s Bryce Daley. Daley, whose college career has been plagued by leg injuries, is apparently being counted on as a key player in 2020-21. His photo is on the school’s athletics web site, linked to an ad for season tickets and single-game tickets.
“He’s looked great,” Duquette said of the former Pittsfield High School and Salisbury School standout. “Bryce has been doing great. He’s practicing every day. He looks good, strong, in good shape.”
Much like athletes at other Division I institutions, the UMass-Lowell basketball players get tested multiple times a week, and are some of the few students actually on campus.
“I think they’ve been awesome. Upbeat, resilient, flexible, open-minded. I’ve tried to keep them informed every step of the way,” Duquette said. “I’ve also had to tell them a number of times ‘I don’t know. I don’t know the answers.’ Nobody knows.
“We’ve got to be patient. They’re just happy to be playing and I think they’ve handled it well.”
What the Lowell players, and even the coaching staff, are trying to figure out is who they’ll play and when they’ll play.
America East Conference play is scheduled to begin the weekend of Dec. 19-20.
The America East Conference’s Board of Directors approved a “bubble-style” conference schedule whereby teams would play two-game series against conference foes, with both games being at one site. Taking UMass-Lowell for example, the schedule could have them playing Saturday and Sunday home games against Binghamton one weekend, and then playing Saturday and Sunday road tilts at UAlbany the next.
“We’d go somewhere and play two games, and it would be done. They wouldn’t come to our place. It’s all done to minimize travel, to minimize risk,” Duquette said when asked about the plan. “Place health and safety first and foremost, and trying to pull this thing off. We also have to test three times a week, so this allows you to get three tests in on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, or Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, and then go play.”
“We are universally committed to responsibly prepare an environment and schedule that safely positions each institution and the conference for basketball competition,” America East Commissioner, Amy Huchthausen said in a release. “We acknowledge this will be a unique season with many variables both within and outside of our control, but we will continue working with relevant stakeholder groups as we build toward a basketball season that prioritizes the health and safety of our teams and broader campus communities. While we continue moving forward with preparations, we are realistic that adaptation and flexibility are critical as conditions evolve in order to successfully navigate this season.”
Duquette, and the other conference coaches have no idea what the non-conference schedule would look like, or if there’s a non-conference schedule at all.
“It’s totally blown up our non-conference schedule,” Duquette said of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’ve never experienced anything like it. Right now, we’re just searching for any games we can play, and not have to quarantine or not put ourselves at any additional risk for infection.
“It’s going to come down to probably local games.”
That, the Wahconah and Williams graduate said, is easier said than done. The Ivy League had announced that when it canceled its fall sports schedule, the conference had also elected to not play sports until the second semester in 2021. Historically, most of the Ivy’s non-conference games take place in November and December. The league isn’t playing those games.
While the Patriot League has not officially announced a cancelation of basketball in the first semester, a number of published reports have indicated that is what will happen. And were it to happen, Massachusetts schools Holy Cross and Boston University would be taken off a potential non-conference schedule.
As of today, there are no non-league games set.
“We’re talking with Merrimack hopefully, with Northeastern hopefully, possibly UMass,” Duquette said. “You’re going to have other teams that are going to go into these bubbles. We’re not going to do that.
“It’s been a struggle, but I think our staff is taking the same approach as our players and taking it day-by-day, and staying positive.”