(Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series centering on Friday’s conference call with St. Bonaventure men’s basketball coach Mark Schmidt. Today: How Bona is bringing its players along under the current conditions).

ST. BONAVENTURE, N.Y. — The hum of the lights inside the Reilly Center, the stillness outside of a few bouncing basketballs, remains the same.

Instead of parts of June and July, the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team is here from mid-July through August. It’s still present for a large portion of the summer; that part remains unchanged.

Different, however, is the way things look now, the uncertain and almost surreal feeling that continues to linger amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Unique to this year was how much more eager coach Mark Schmidt was to welcome back his players after four months — an eternity in the world of college basketball — of being apart.

“What’s changed is coaches wearing masks when we’re out there doing individuals,” Schmidt said Friday, in his first press gathering, conducted over Zoom, since March. “You feel your breath in your face for an hour.

“But we’re excited. We haven’t seen the players, other than on these Zoom sessions, since they left in late March. As we say all the time, they become part of your family. Just to see their excitement about coming back and playing the game that they love … that was good.”

ALSO AMONG the good was the news that Bona delivered.

Since some personnel began returning in mid-July, the school has conducted 50 tests for COVID-19 (23 athletes, 27 staff members). All 50 came back negative.

Schmidt noted that “most” of the Bona men’s basketball players are back, though some have had their returns delayed while still waiting on home test results and two others — Alpha Okoli (California) and Jalen Adaway (Indiana) — are on campus, but currently quarantining after coming from states on New York’s 14-day travel list.

In the last 10 days, seven guys have been able to begin conditioning and individual workouts, albeit with a number of safety protocols in place. And for Schmidt, that’s the unequivocal No. 1 priority at the moment: Bringing his players, who have been largely inactive since March, along slowly and safely.

After all, said the 14th-year coach, “It’s a learning situation for all of us.”

“So the biggest concern now getting kids back is No. 1, they’re safe from the virus, but secondly that they don’t get hurt — pulling muscles, hamstrings, groins,” he said, “and just try to get the kids back into some kind of basketball shape without hurting them.

“Even from a basketball standpoint, doing individuals, (it’s) making sure that we’re not pushing them too hard and that we’re doing things for their benefit. Right now, you want to get up shots and you want to work on your ball-handling, but it’s really making sure the kids get back into some type of shape.”

SCHMIDT, as with any coach in the country at the moment, is wholly unsure of the fate of the coming season.

The winningest boss in Bona annals is hearing the same things as everyone else — that it might still be played out as scheduled, that it could go to a Jan. 1 start with conference games only or that it might be wiped out entirely.

Schmidt did note that if he was a betting man, he’d wager on the middle of those options, that the 2020-21 campaign begins in January and features 18-20 league contests and the Atlantic 10 Tournament (more on that in Part 2 of this series).

In the moment, however, as the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc around the country, that’s not exactly where his focus lies. His duty, he said, now is to find that medium between returning his players to normal while navigating the current conditions from within their version of the “Bona Bubble.”

“It’s really telling … some kids have been affected by it,” he said. “They know people that got it. Other kids, and when you’re 18-22 (years old), if you’ve never experienced it, if you haven’t seen it, you don’t think it’s real, so it’s our job to educate them … and it’s been an education for me as well, and the coaching staff.

“I think we’ve done a really good job of making sure everything’s in place; it’s just making sure (of) the safety and welfare of our players. Forget about basketball, basketball’s secondary. I think we’ve done a really good job of making sure the environment is good for them to be effective and safe.”

BONA’S PLAYERS were tested both before and after returning to campus and had to quarantine for two days upon their arrival.

But then it was back to basketball.

On Tuesday, the Bonnies’ Twitter account posted pictures of some of those workouts — of Osun Osunniyi and Kyle Lofton, of transfer guard Eddie Creal and a masked assistant coach Tray Woodall working with Jaren English. Scrolling past them almost gave you pause. They were the first photos of their kind since Bona put up a short pre-game video prior to its canceled Atlantic 10 Tournament game on March 12.

For Bona, which hopes to be practicing as normal come October, it’s going to be slow going as it transitions “back to what they enjoy.” But that’s true of every basketball team in the country.

One of the benefits, Schmidt said, is that it has a core of established juniors and a mostly veteran, if still young-ish, roster to work with as it goes forth into uncharted territory. The good thing is those juniors — Lofton, Osunniyi, English and Dominick Welch — came in ready to go.

“You can tell those guys are committed. They came back and, for the most part, they were in decent shape. They’re good leaders, they understand what it takes.,” he said, before acknowledging of the circumstances, “We can’t make any excuses; it is what it is. Everybody’s going through it. We’ve just got to make the best of a not great situation.

“We’re lucky to have those types of guys that are really committed, that understand how difficult it is to be successful at this level and (that you) can’t stop working. You’ve got to take advantage of what you have. These guys have done a really good job at home, staying in shape. The core that we have … I’m lucky to have guys that are really committed.”

(J.P. Butler, Bradford Publishing Company group sports editor, can be reached at jbutler@oleantimesherald.com)

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