After an unfortunate set of circumstances struck the Northern Kentucky University men’s basketball team, head coach Darrin Horn gave his players the opportunity to go home for Christmas.
On Tuesday, Dec. 22, the Norse announced that due to “COVID-related matters within NKU’s Tier 1 personnel,” NKU was pausing all basketball activities and canceling games on Dec. 26 and 27. Since the Norse couldn’t practice anyway, Horn told the players they could quarantine at home.
Only one player did.
“That showed their concern of wanting to do the right thing and not put themselves, their family members or their teammates at risk,” Horn said.
Six weeks into the basketball season, Horn said he’s still learning how to deal with NKU’s scattershot schedule that has been impacted by coronavirus-related cancelations.
Over the last four weeks, the Norse played back-to-back games on Dec. 19 and 20, took a two-week layoff and then returned to play back-to-back games on Jan. 1 and 2.
Horn has already tweaked his game-week preparation multiple times this season, since the Horizon League is having teams play back-to-back games on the weekend to reduce travel.
It’s a schedule Horn said he’s never dealt with at any level of basketball.
The strangest stretch of the Norse’s season began on Dec. 22 when NKU postponed all team activities because of coronavirus-related matters. The Norse’s strength coach gave the team some exercises they could do on their own, but there was nothing Horn could do except stay in touch virtually with his players.
“If you’re not practicing and physically together, it gets really tough,” Horn said. “This isn’t a situation where you just can’t practice. When your team shuts down and has to quarantine because of contract tracing, you’re shut down. It impacts everybody.”
After about a week off, the Norse could finally return to the practice court. But that adjustment was just as difficult. Beginning with the first practice on Monday night, Horn had four days to prepare the Norse for two games the following weekend against Purdue Fort Wayne.
On Monday night, Horn had the players spend the entire practice getting shots up and their legs back under them. The Norse had a light practice on Tuesday and ramped up the energy on Wednesday.
NKU only had two full practices before playing back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday.
“The thing that’s challenging about this is it’s not just time off, there’s not a lot of time to get ready for the next game,” Horn said. “We had been off eight days, so you can’t come back full go the day you come back because they’ve been off for eight days.”
When the Norse took the court for their first game back on Friday, Horn admitted the Norse looked sluggish. NKU committed five turnovers in the first five minutes, and Purdue Fort Wayne took an early 15-4 lead.
Then Horn made a risky adjustment for a team still ramping up from an extended break –– he called for a more aggressive defense. The Norse forced 23 turnovers. NKU beat Purdue Fort Wayne 75-68 on Friday and again on Saturday, 70-68.
“We only really had two real practices before playing, and that’s as much of a challenge as anything else,” Horn said. “Not only are you not working with them, you have to consider that they haven’t been working and playing coming out of the break. But we took care of the ball a little bit better in the second half, and defensively we were really aggressive, really good in the second half.”
Horn said he plans to change the team’s game-week schedule again this week before two games at Cleveland State on Friday and Saturday. The Vikings (6-3) are undefeated in Horizon League play this season and lost by just 6 points at Ohio State in December.
Heading into the weekend, Horn said the Norse have nearly fully re-acclimated after the layoff.
“Everything is so new, so different and there’s so many variables right now,” Horn said. “I like where we are. But with more back-to-back games this weekend, you never really know.”