The University of Cincinnati men's basketball team hasn't gone out to a restaurant for dinner as a group in nearly 10 months.
The team meal was at a Ruth's Chris Steak House in Texas in March after the Bearcats flew to Fort Worth for the American Athletic Conference (AAC) tournament.
Cincinnati was the No. 1 seed.
But the tournament never happened. It was canceled due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. The novel coronavirus outbreak wiped out the entire postseason.
Ten months later, the pandemic has altered everything and created a 2020-21 season unlike any other UC head coach John Brannen has experienced or could have imagined.
"It's more challenging than I probably anticipated, and for them (the players), at that age, that can be hard," he said on Tuesday.
Cincinnati (2-6, 0-3 AAC) has lost five straight, with three of those loses coming by five or fewer points. It's the toughest stretch Brannen has had since losing seven straight at the end of the 2015-16 season when he was a first-year head coach at Northern Kentucky University.
Brannen and the Norse finished 9-21 that year.
This season, Brannen's second at UC, has included a host of unprecedented challenges both on and off the court that have pushed Brannen and his players to their limits mentally.
That's saying a lot for a coach who took the court last season at then-No. 25 Houston roughly 24 hours after the death of his father, who also was named John Brannen.
"This is not a normal year and it's not a normal day," he said. "It's (mental health) magnified right now because people are talking about it, but it's important. We've gone through it on our team. We've got one young man right now that's going through it openly. We're here to support him like we've been since the beginning."
Graduate transfer forward Rapolas Ivanauskas and freshman guard Gabe Madsen opted out of the remainder of the season last week, while junior forward Mamoudou Diarra, who opted out in early December, has opted back in.
Madsen shared in a post to Twitter how this season and the circumstances surrounding it have taken a toll on his mental well-being.
"The lifestyle that (COVID-19) is forcing people to live with daily (not being able to do things other than be in my room or the gym) has made achieving balance in my life, which allows me to enjoy basketball and my day-to-day life to the fullest, extremely difficult," he said.
UC's "bubble" has forced the players into isolation, which is a lot to ask of an 18- to 23-year-old, Brannen said.
"They don't get to go home to their family," he said. "I get to go home to (my wife) Lisa and the kids. They don't, not on weekends, not on a day off. This bubble, this bubble for us is real."
To help cope, Brannen and his staff have tried their best to do just about anything possible, including moving practice to Fifth Third Arena so that they may have a Wiffle ball stadium built in the team's practice facility.
Brannen held a coaches-versus-players Wiffle ball game. He pitched.
"(Sophomore guard) Zach (Harvey) asked how many innings we were going to play, and I said, 'Well, until the coaches win,'" Brannen said. "So, we got up in the top of the sixth and we won in the bottom of the sixth."
Brannen said junior guard David DeJulius isn't very good with a Wiffle ball bat.
"Thank God he plays basketball," he said.
The Bearcats will look to end their five-game losing streak when they hit the road for back-to-back games, first on Thursday at SMU (6-1, 2-1 AAC), followed by a test on Sunday at Wichita State (6-2, 2-0 AAC).
Thursday's game is scheduled for 7 p.m. on ESPNU, while the Bearcats are set to tip off against the Shockers at 4:30 p.m. on ESPN2.
Brannen said he'll do his best not to press as he and the Bearcats search for their next victory.
"It's Cincinnati, so you always have a sense of urgency," he said. "So, yeah, it's not fun to be inside my head right now."