As University of Utah facilities reopen to athletes, optimism abounds, at least from the hoops team

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of UtahÕs freshman point guard Rylan Jones, Nov. 4, 2019.

To be clear, the University of Utah will welcome back student-athletes starting on Monday with in-state kids, but will do so voluntarily.

No one is being forced to come back to the Salt Lake City campus, no scholarships are going to be stripped if student-athletes opt against participating. After all, face-to-face contact in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic has been frowned upon, and cases in the state of Utah are on the rise.

Still, optimism is abundant, at least from the men’s basketball end of things. The Utes roster has five Utah natives on the roster. All five of them, sophomores Eli Ballstaedt, Jaxon Brenchley, Rylan Jones and Branden Carlson, plus redshirt freshman Luc Krystkowiak are set to return.

“I was extremely excited when they began talking about athletes returning to campus,” Jones told The Salt Lake Tribune. “It was explained to us what was going to happen, how it was going to be, and what we’re really in for. I think we all want to get back as soon as possible and I’m excited to see some of our guys, but it has to be safety first.”

Brenchley and Carlson echoed similar feelings. After three months of self-quarantining, finishing spring semester course work on Zoom, plus conducting team meetings on the video-based chat service, getting back to campus and getting back inside athletic facilities feels long overdue, if not a return to some semblance of normalcy. However, the players know that none of this works unless safety measures are in place.

When the athletic department unveiled its restart plan on May 28, it included measures calling for PCR COVID-19 and antibody testing for student-athletes and staff prior to anyone returning.

Testing of the aforementioned four basketball players took place on campus on Wednesday, with the results expected back in time to determine whether or not they can participate Monday. Starting Monday and every day moving forward, there is going to be an online symptom form to fill out, and a medical check point to visit on campus.

Once those hurdles are cleared, only then will players be escorted to the practice facility. There will be some level of isolation once inside with one player per hoop and no group workouts. If everything is clear after two weeks, some group work may commence.

From the time players arrive to the time they leave is expected to be in the neighborhood of two hours.

Stanford's Oscar da Silva, right, defends against Utah's Branden Carlson (35) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, in Stanford, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

“I do think the school has everything figured out and there is a good system in place,” Carlson told The Tribune. “I’m just happy and excited to get back up to The U, get some shots, start getting back to work. It’s exciting. It was nice to have a little break, but I miss it.”

Added Jones: “It feels like we’re going to turn the corner on this, getting back into facilities, getting back to old habits, old patterns we were accustomed to. I think we’ll be in good shape, as long as nothing crazy happens with the virus.”

Utah’s student-athlete rephasing plan has been viewed as thorough and prudent. After in-state student-athletes from football, basketball, soccer, volleyball and gymnastics come back on Monday, out-of-state returning athletes from those sports are scheduled to come back on June 22. June 28 will see new athletes in those sports return, with June 29 appearing to be a key date in the process.

According to Utah’s May 28 presentation, June 29 will mark a reevaluation of the first three phases. If it is determined things are going smoothly, all other sports will return across three dates, July 13, 20 and 27. The fall semester is scheduled to begin on Aug. 24.

(Eric Butler | For The Tribune) Max Brenchley, Lone Peak High.

“It does feel like things are getting back to normal,” Brenchley told The Tribune. “Things were crazy for a while, but it was good to spend a lot of time with the family. I was lucky to have access to a full court the whole time, so I’ve been able to work on my game.”

Pandemic-related decision-making inside athletic departments has rightly been focused on football, but at some point, basketball is going to have to be a larger part of the discussion.

Basketball decisions will be dependent to some extent on what football is doing. More specifically, will COVID-19 cause a midseason delay? Will football start on time, if at all? Furthermore, how the United States in general is dealing with the pandemic come fall will likely be a huge factor for hoops.

For now, Utah is scheduled to open the 2020-21 season on Nov. 10 against Utah Valley at the Huntsman Center. The Utes are currently booked for 10 non-conference games, including three against a stacked field at Battle 4 Atlantis. They have room to add one more non-conference game if they choose to do so.