Southern Illinois women’s basketball team has lost five games this season due to COVID-19. And that’s far from the only affect that the 10-month old pandemic has had on the program.
Take, for instance, the injuries to Janell Douvier and Awa Keita. Not that you can blame Douvier’s broken hand and Keita’s sore knee on coronavirus, but it certainly hasn’t helped them make the impact on the team that they or coach Cindy Stein envisioned.
The 6-1 Douvier has displayed the ability to rebound and pass during her few minutes on the floor in four games. Yet to be seen is a 3-point touch that would come in handy on a team that has struggled to make 3s at an acceptable percentage.
Last year, the 6-1 Keita showed that she was arguably the best athlete on the team. When healthy, she is a great weapon off the bench due to her athletic ability. Few teams in the Valley would gain a defensive spark in reserve like the Salukis would with Keita at full strength.
But all season long, SIU has operated at least two players shy. And Stein, talking Saturday night after her team lost 80-68 at Bradley, mentioned the impact of not having her team fully whole.
“If we had those two kids healthy, things change,” Stein said. “But we don’t.”
Being shorthanded is tough in any season. Being shorthanded in the middle of this pandemic season, when a coach might figure (or hope) to have 10 players available for practice so he/she can plan for 5-on-5 work and then finds out just seven or eight will be hand because of a positive test or even a false positive, is a whole different level of difficult.
It sounds like an excuse to some, but it’s reality for the Salukis, and probably for a whole bunch of other teams trying to answer these questions every single day.
“I’ve said all along that this COVID thing is a different experience,” Stein said. “You’re constantly having to come up with ways to challenge your team. Some days you have seven players, other days you have eight.
“It’s hard to condition your team when you can’t go 5-on-5 the whole time. There’s a next layer of offense and defense, and we haven’t been able to do it consistently. It shows.”
Stein said this an hour after Bradley, which athletically is better than anyone SIU has played this year except for Missouri, blew open a close game with a 23-4 run that bridged the third and fourth quarters.
Stein blamed a lack of conditioning for the spurt, saying her team wore down and couldn’t make “tired shots.” Whether fatigue or another possibility, which is that this version of Bradley is a bad matchup for this version of the Salukis, is the reason can be debated.
But it’s not a stretch to suggest that coronavirus has affected the texture of their season on and off the floor. Remember, there was a 17-day stretch that started on Thanksgiving weekend where the team didn’t play because of a COVID pause that canceled three games and a COVID cancellation due to positive tests in Saint Louis' program. And there was a 12-day break between games because of a false positive that erased a Dec. 22 game at Illinois five hours before tipoff.
The effects of losing practice and game time leave coaches still finding out about their team in the middle of conference play, when they normally would have the answers to any remaining questions.
Two questions SIU wishes it knew the answers to – how good is Douvier, just how useful would Keita be as a supersub? – are ones they might not be able to figure out this year.
Bucky Dent covers prep sports for the Southern Illinoisan and also votes on the Wooden Award. He can be reached at 618-351-5086 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.