With less than two weeks remaining before the start of his team’s season, Villanova coach Jay Wright is doing his best to navigate the preseason minefield that has produced injuries and the continuing fear of what COVID-19 tests might come up positive on a given day.
Sometimes the injuries and the coronavirus go hand in hand.
The Wildcats, who are ranked third in the preseason, had to pause their workouts in September after a few unidentified members of their program tested positive for COVID-19. Then “three or four days after quarantine,” Wright said four players, including starting guards Collin Gillespie (hamstring) and Justin Moore (left knee bone bruise) sustained injuries that forced them to miss significant time.
Gillespie, who sat out nearly two months, and Moore are back at practice, but the most noteworthy absence is sophomore guard Bryan Antoine with a right shoulder injury, the same shoulder that was surgically repaired in May 2019 and limited him to 87 minutes in 16 games last season.
Wright said Antoine’s injury “really concerns me.”
“I can’t say right now what it is, but he’s been out,” he said Thursday in a Zoom conference call with reporters. “He was doing a good job in September, looking good, but then hurt his shoulder again. He’s been out probably since the 23rd of September and it doesn’t look like he’s going to get back real quick here. He’s keeping a great attitude, but that’s the one that concerns me.”
The 6-foot-5 Antoine was one of the nation’s best high school guards when he signed with the Wildcats, but a sore shoulder that bothered him throughout his senior season at the Ranney School in Tinton Falls, N.J., turned out to be a torn labrum that required surgery.
Antoine spent five months rehabilitating the shoulder and there was talk he might redshirt, but he was able to return to action Nov. 21 at the Myrtle Beach Invitational. Still, he was behind in his development and played sparingly.
A fourth player, senior walk-on guard Kevin Hoehn, suffered a torn Achilles.
“We tried to come back slow and easy [after quarantine], but it still happened,” Wright said of the injuries. “It’s one of the things that we all have to keep an eye on during the season because if your team gets shut down, it’s not just those 14 days. It’s coming back and getting yourself back into practice because they can’t work out or practice when they’re in quarantine.”
The Wildcats begin their season Nov. 25 against Boston College in the 2K Empire Classic at Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn. They will play either No. 2 Baylor or No. 18 Arizona State the next night.
Then there are coronavirus concerns. Big East members Seton Hall and Connecticut have had to stop practice because of positive tests in their programs. Wright held his breath Thursday when he received new test results, but everyone tested negative.
“I’ll be honest, I lay in bed at night thinking about it,” he said. “We got in here today and everybody’s good and we just take a sigh of relief and you know you’ve got two days. Then you test the next day. That’s really how it is. It’s a crazy way to go through a season, but I think all of us are willing to do whatever we have to, to play basketball.”
As for the prospect of playing part of the regular season in a bubble, Wright said Big East schools have decided the costs would be too high. The Cats will play 10 games between Nov. 25 and Dec. 23 and Wright feels at some point the season will be interrupted by the virus, meaning games would have to be made up in January or February.
All in all, however, he is pleased with the commitment his players have made.
“We have created our own version of a bubble on campus where our guys are really isolated and we’ve got to leave it up to the honor system,” he said. “I’m really proud of these guys and so far, so good. We’re tested three times a week, so we know every time those tests come back, we could be shut down at any time. So it’s always in the back of your mind. It’s a totally different mindset than any of us have ever had.”