Gophers men's basketball coach Ben Johnson was concerned about his team staying healthy during an extended road trip earlier this month, and that fear was realized with a postponement of Wednesday's game at Penn State.
The Gophers (10-5, 1-5 Big Ten) announced Tuesday that they will not be able to compete right now because of COVID-19 issues within the program. They dropped below the Big Ten's minimum of seven scholarship players available to play after testing Monday.
In Sunday's 81-71 loss to Iowa at Williams Arena, the Gophers played without two assistants and four players missing due to COVID-19 protocol, illness, and injury. The team took a risk when the Gophers played at Indiana and Michigan State without returning home for five days.
"The chances were probably high that if one person got it during that time just because of our travel arrangements that it was going to kind of trickle down," Johnson said Tuesday on his radio show before the postponement news. "So you kind of brace for it. You got a feeling that it's going to in some way, shape or form affect the program."
The Gophers are working to reschedule the Penn State game with the Big Ten, and they are still scheduled to play Saturday against Rutgers at home. On Jan. 4, the Gophers played a postponed game when the Illinois program was dealing with COVID issues. And Minnesota's Dec. 29 game against Alcorn State at home was canceled after an outbreak of cases on gameday for the opponent's team.
Hundreds of college basketball programs around the country have gone through COVID pauses this season, including Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois, Penn State and Rutgers. The Big Ten was the last of the power conferences to eliminate automatic forfeits for missed games because of COVID-19.
Per the Gophers, athletes or staff who test positive are isolated. Athletes who test positive undergo cardiac screening and must be cleared by a team physician before returning to competition. The Big Ten follows CDC guidelines in which individuals isolate for five days, followed by five days of mask wearing in public.
Last week, the Gophers announced that Jan. 26 through Feb. 9 there would be a vaccination requirement, following city guidelines, for indoor sports venues. Fans would need to provide proof of vaccination against COVID or a negative test in the previous 72 hours.
Before Sunday's game against Iowa, Johnson said the approaching vaccine requirements were meant to provide a safe environment for fans to still show up in force at the Barn.
"You go to Indiana, and you go to Michigan State you see fans, you see passion, you see energy," Johnson said on the radio show. "We'd love to create that here. That's the next phase of this program. I hope our fans understand they're a big part of our success."
An announced crowd of 10,925 Sunday saw the shorthanded Gophers nearly erase a 23-point deficit in the second half to get within three points against the Hawkeyes late.
A silver lining with the Gophers' postponement is possibly getting senior big man Eric Curry back from his ankle injury after he missed Sunday's game. Curry was still considered day-to-day on Tuesday.
It's uncertain when the Gophers will have enough healthy players to return to the court to try to end a four-game slide, but Johnson felt like Sunday's comeback provided a boost.
"They know we're close to breaking through and we have played pretty good basketball," Johnson said. "They see the big picture. We've got some mature guys who understand it and they know we've done a lot of good things. We just haven't closed."