Iona set to start ‘absolutely crazy’ schedule after long COVID-19 pause

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Since Iona College last played a game, a new Super Bowl champion was crowned. A new U.S. president was inaugurated.

The Mets traded for superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor and fired their general manager, Jared Porter. The Yankees re-signed DJ LeMahieu. The Nets landed James Harden.

Yes, it has been that long — 51 days — since the Gaels took the court together, dating back to a Dec. 23 victory over Coppin State. No other active team in the country has had such a long break between games. On late Friday afternoon, Iona will finally return, playing the first of back-to-back games against rival Manhattan College in New Rochelle.

“I’m hoping,” Iona coach Rick Pitino said in a phone interview. “Every time I get excited, I get a phone call. I have guarded optimism.”

COVID-19 positive tests have mostly ruined Pitino’s return to college basketball. The virus eliminated the program’s plans to play in a three-game tournament in the Bahamas and two neutral-site games at the Garden and Mohegan Sun. It has had to pause basketball activities three times.

Twice, Iona had games canceled the day of. Another game was postponed the night before. On Super Bowl Sunday, Iona’s planned return on Wednesday against Niagara was called off due to COVID-19 issues with the MAAC opponent. Altogether, 17 members of the program have tested positive for the virus, including Pitino. Since Dec. 29, nine players have had it, the result of an undetected positive test that led to an outbreak because the results took multiple days to return in the instance in question.

Assistant coach Casey Stanley flinches when he gets a phone call or a text message, fearing the worst possible news: Another postponement, pause or cancellation.

“I’m on high alert at all times,” he joked.

The hope is Iona, which owns a 5-3 record and 3-1 mark in league play, is past this now, since such a large percentage of the program has tested positive already. Otherwise, Pitino warned, the season could get canceled completely. It can’t afford another pause. Starting Friday, the Gaels will play 10 games in 22 days. As long as they can play four more contests they will be eligible for the NCAA Tournament.

It will be a daunting stretch for a group of players who have been so inactive for two months, forced to quarantine several times. Pitino said his players are in “September shape.” He hasn’t worked them too hard, wanting to avoid injury after so much inactivity. But Pitino won’t change how he plays. Iona will still press and run. He’ll just go deeper into his bench.

“I’m so excited. Words wouldn’t do it justice,” senior star Isaiah Ross said.

Three times — Nov. 12, Dec. 29 and Jan. 16 — Iona has paused activities due to positive tests and everyone has been forced to quarantine for at least 10 days. Players who test positive aren’t allowed to do any physical activity. After getting out of quarantine, they have to see a cardiologist and receive heart tests before being cleared to even exercise. The other players were given exercise bikes and athletic bands to stay active. Three meals a day were dropped off to them. Last week, full-team practices resumed.

“It’s just constantly trying to get them back in shape,” Pitino said.

Like his teammates, senior Dylan van Eyck can’t wait for Friday afternoon. He tested positive with symptoms for COVID-19 and was in quarantine most recently for 16 days. He spent a large chunk of that time watching basketball, following his friends from a distance. Now, he’ll get the chance to not only get back on the court, but be there frequently over the next few weeks.

“Ten games in 22 days is absolutely crazy. I’ve never had that,” van Eyck said. “We’re right there at the bottom of the entire nation in games played. We are extremely motivated. We can’t wait. We’re getting each other pumped up, excited. We’re definitely ready.”

When asked what he expects on Friday, Pitino joked there would be a lot of turnovers, a lot of missed shots and a lot of gasping for air. Even before this season, he didn’t have expectations for this team other than to improve as the year progressed. It returned just four contributors and had to work in nine new players. There was no offseason training program due to the virus.

Now, after 51 days away, the Hall of Fame coach has one goal, and it is rather simple: He wants to see his players have fun.

“The only thing on my mind is to let the seniors have a good experience,” Pitino said, “and prepare for next year.

“We’re going to enjoy the fact we’re playing basketball.”

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