As Utah State junior guard Brock Miller walked down the tunnel of The Spectrum last week and took his first steps on the basketball court since mid-March, his mind wasn’t flooded by thought after thought about what the return meant.
Instead, he discerned a familiar, homey feeling. One he hasn’t felt since USU’s NCAA Tournament run was canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was almost like a sense of calm fell over him.
“I think one word to sum it up would be ‘refreshing,’ ” Miller said.
The Aggies returned to their home gym last week after months of working out wherever they quarantined. Some scattered to homes across the world, others stayed in Logan. About a month ago, USU’s campus and athletic facilities opened for any athlete who wanted to partake in voluntary strength and conditioning work.
But last week marked the first time since the pandemic hit that the team was together on its home floor, preparing for a basketball season scheduled to start in November.
“I think there’s a real genuine appreciation to be back on the floor,” Aggies coach Craig Smith said. “I think there’s a genuine appreciation for one another.”
The team went through a few practice sessions that incorporated either individual work or work within positional groups. This week, however, the entire team practiced together, seeing what combinations of players portend synergy and playing some 5-on-5.
Smith said he had a nightmare Sunday night where his players had a bad Monday practice. He told some of his staff members about the dream, but not the team.
Fortunately, what actually transpired was quite the opposite of Smith’s nocturnal torment.
“There was a whole other level of energy,” Smith said. “It felt like a game day.”
But while there’s some normalcy creeping back into the lives of the Aggies from a basketball perspective, returning to the court still has its foreign elements. Miller said some of the safety protocols every player and member of the coaching staff have been following include every coach wearing a mask and gloves, everyone receiving temperature checks before entering the arena, and basketballs being disinfected after every workout.
It’s a sign of the uncertainty that still exists around college sports, even basketball, which traditionally starts closer to winter. As for the more impending fall sports, some programs have opted for a conference-only schedule while other programs — namely the Ivy League — have canceled fall sports altogether.
The Mountain West Conference, in which USU plays, has not yet made its decision on fall sports. But the possibility of an augmented basketball season is on the minds of some Aggies players.
Smith said practically anything is possible at this point — from a full season with an on-time start to a conference-only season starting in early January. But he’s trying to keep his mind from delving into the numerous scenarios as much as possible.
“We have no control over that, so we’re just preparing full steam ahead like everything is going to be status quo, so to speak, in terms of our first game on Nov. 10,” Smith said.
The Aggies have not released their 2020-21 basketball schedule.
Some professional sports leagues have successfully returned by playing in a “bubble” environment. The National Women’s Soccer League recently completed a monthlong tournament in Utah with no positive COVID-19 tests, and both Major League Soccer and the NBA are playing in Florida and haven’t had issues for some time.
But Major League Baseball and two lower-division soccer leagues incorporated travel to other markets in their returned-to-play plans with less success. Those leagues have seen players and staff test positive, and several MLB games have been postponed because of it.
Junior forward Justin Bean acknowledged social distancing will be difficult once school returns in the fall.
“When it comes down to it, it’s going to be really tough when school starts again and when kids come back on campus,” Bean said. “It’s going to require a lot of patience for sure from our guys and being able to just be smart and maybe make sacrifices that you weren’t planning on making before the season started.”
But for right now, the Aggies are just relishing their return to basketball. While the team will feature a host of new players this upcoming season, hopes are still high. The Sam Merrill era that culminated in an iconic game-winning shot may be over, but the next chapter of the Neemias Queta era is looming.
And no matter what happens with the upcoming season, the Aggies say they will be ready.
“Whether we have preseason or just conference, I know that we’re going to be ready for whatever happens,” Miller said. “As long as we keep our minds right and focus, I think we’re going to be fine and we’re going to do really well this year no matter what we’re given.”