When Nebraska’s men’s basketball program went on pause in January because of COVID-19 positive tests within the program, Huskers coach Fred Hoiberg called Iowa’s Fran McCaffery and made a promise.
The Huskers, he said, would make up the Jan. 24 game against the Hawkeyes that had to be postponed.
Never mind the fact that Nebraska, at the time, were on a five-game losing streak and were 4-8 overall.
“I think you have to give a lot of credit to Fred,” McCaffery said on Tuesday as the Hawkeyes prepare for Thursday’s rescheduled game against the Huskers at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “When he got sick, when they first paused, he called me to tell me. He said, ‘We're going to make up the games. We're all systems go. We'll get better.’
“I think making a statement with, OK, we had some difficulties we had to overcome, but we're going to go ahead and finish out the schedule, continue to compete, you’ve got to respect that.”
It means that, barring any sort of positive tests this week, the Hawkeyes will be able to get in all 27 of their scheduled games this season.
It’s quite a feat in a season where schedules have been jumbled because of COVID-19 protocols.
The Hawkeyes, to their credit, haven’t had any of their own issues.
“I think it starts with the commitment our institution made, our department, to daily testing,” McCaffery said. “It really comes down to the discipline I think that our players showed and a commitment to one another to be safe, do everything we could in terms of making good decisions off the floor so we can show up in practice every day, we can show up and play in all of our games.”
It hasn’t been easy, though.
“We’ve shown a tremendous amount of maturity in being able to handle this kind of unprecedented time we’re in,” senior center Luka Garza said.
“It’s a testament to the sacrifices we’ve made as a team,” senior guard Jordan Bohannon said.
Garza said he and some of the upperclassmen on the team had a team meeting before the season to emphasize that if this season was going to work, it was on the players to make it happen. The Hawkeyes were ranked as one of the top teams in the preseason, contenders for not just a Big Ten title but a national title as well.
To get to the finish meant getting through the season.
“We had a meeting on what it’s going to be like,” Garza said. “We had to make sure that you’re going home, and you’re coming to the gym, and that’s all you’re doing. We can hang out with each other, but we can’t hang out with other people, we can’t see family.
“It’s different. But you have to be able to understand what your priority is — to play in March, to play all of our games. That’s the priority. In order to do that, you have to be smart, you have to be careful. You can’t be going out, you can’t be walking around downtown. You can’t put yourselves in position where you potentially could get sick.”
“Around October was when we locked everything down,” Bohannon said. “We said we’re going to focus on basketball. We’re not going to go outside, go downtown, go see people, go see our friends, go see our families. We said we’re going to be focused on this team throughout the entire season.”
There is the mental challenge that goes with the isolation.
“It’s a lot different,” Garza said. “It’s harder, mentally, on every basketball player, because there’s no distractions. You go home, you go to the gym. That’s it. There’s nothing else. There’s no escape.”
“Because we haven’t had any positives, it’s a testament to the guys in the locker room sacrificing a lot, and not going outside their social distancing circles,” Bohannon said. “It has been tough.”
The Hawkeyes close the regular season with Sunday’s home game against Wisconsin. After that, they’ll head to Indianapolis for the Big Ten tournament and then the NCAA tournament.
The bubble is going on the road for a while, but it’s what the Hawkeyes have expected.
“We’re a group that would do whatever it took to play all of our games,” Garza said.