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Mizzou set to resume season after COVID pause

By Dave Matter
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Missouri guard Mark Smith (13) misses on a dunk attempt in a loss to Mississippi State on Jan. 5 The Tigers have been idle since that game because of COVID-19 issues.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – After an unusual midseason interlude, it's game on for the Missouri men's basketball team.

For now.

The No. 17 Tigers haven't played since their Jan. 5 loss at Mississippi State as COVID-19 cases within the program cost the team two games, last Saturday's home contest against LSU and Tuesday's visit from Vanderbilt. With some members of the program in quarantine, Mizzou went a week without any full-team activities. On Wednesday, the Tigers had their first full-team practice, and on Thursday, coach Cuonzo Martin said he expects to have everyone available for Saturday's game at Texas A&M.

"As of today, yes," Martin said.

As always with the coronavirus, all plans are pending the next round of test results, but as of Thursday evening, the Tigers (7-2, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) were set to leave Friday for Saturday's noon tipoff in College Station, Texas, to face the Aggies (7-4, 2-3).

Players who weren't required to quarantine were able to work out at Mizzou Arena with members of the coaching staff, sometimes limited to small groups or individual drills. They watched film together or worked out in the weight room but also spent extra time on conditioning.

"The guys seem to be in good shape considering (the layoff)," Martin said. "I've been in leagues where you had a week off (during the season), so I don't think that's a bad thing. Oftentimes when you're playing a lot of games, it can take a toll on your body, the consecutive games. Having a week off is not a bad thing in my opinion. They seem to be fine."

"We had to find time for ourselves, individually, to get in the gym to work out and get treatment," senior center Jeremiah Tilmon said. "We were still able to work out as long as it was one-on-one. So we really didn't miss out on much, because we were still having to run before and after our workouts to maintain conditioning."

It's unclear when the Tigers will reschedule the two postponed games, but the SEC intentionally left open the weekend of March 6-7 for any regular-season makeup games. MU's last scheduled game is March 3 at Florida. The SEC tournament begins March 10 in Nashville, leaving the Tigers a few days in between to squeeze in any rescheduled contests.

Across the SEC, Vanderbilt and South Carolina have also missed conference games because of positive cases within their program. The SEC redirected Tennessee to play at Vanderbilt on Tuesday, but the Commodores (4-5, 0-3) had to postpone hours before tipoff because of COVID cases. South Carolina (3-2, 1-0) has already postponed three SEC games but expects to resume play Saturday at LSU – though Gamecocks coach Frank Martin and two staffers and players won't attend and must quarantine. The other 11 teams in the SEC have played at least four or five conference games heading into the weekend.

As Mizzou comes off its longest stretch between games since the season started two months ago – the 10-day break will be one day longer than MU's time between games against Illinois and Bradley – Martin was careful not to make too much of the schedule interruption, but said he was just as concerned about what he called "mental stress."

Martin has a weekly call with a group of college coaches and said they usually share ideas on how they can help their teams deal with the mental and emotional toll this season has already taken on players.

"You've got some guys, not for us, but some players who have been on their campuses since June and haven't gone home, not even for the Christmas holiday," he said. "That's a hard thing to deal with so you can have a successful season. You have to respect and admire the fact that these young men and women have made that sacrifice, which is not an easy one. We take that for granted as coaches and administrative people (because) we are at home."

While the Tigers managed through their postponed games, Martin found himself putting the team's adversity in perspective when he's talked to players recently, especially in light of the news they've absorbed from what's unfolded since last week's attack on the Capitol in Washington.

"This is life stuff," Martin said. "I equate it to talking about when you become a father, a husband and all those sorts of things you have to deal with and issues. You lose your job or something happens to one of your children or they have to go to hospital for an extended period of time. How do you deal with these issues? It's all life stuff, man. This is still a sport. This is basketball. This is entertainment. This is not pressure. I think oftentimes we put pressure on ourselves, but this is entertainment. We're blessed to actually be playing this game."