Freshman Martice Mitchell’s introduction to the Gophers men’s basketball team was anything but normal when he showed up to campus.
The 6-10 four-star recruit from Chicago moved into an apartment more than a week ago by himself. He was among seven arriving men’s basketball players who first had to pass COVID-19 protocols to use facilities and participate in voluntary activities.
In any other year, the campus would’ve been bustling with students in June. Athletic facilities would’ve been just as busy. And Richard Pitino’s entire team would’ve been together — an ideal environment for newcomers to acclimate.
Instead, during the pandemic, only a handful of players are present. They’re working out on their own, waiting for the rest of the roster to arrive.
“I can’t wait until they get here,” Mitchell said. “I have a good bond with them all.”
On Monday, the Gophers announced seven positive COVID-19 cases among athletes out of 170 tests in multiple sports.
The U didn’t disclose results for each team, but sources said no Gophers men’s basketball players were among those testing positive.
Pitino’s entire team was initially going to be on campus by June 21 to go through the testing process, which includes a swab test, blood test for antibodies and brief quarantine.
Most of the football team returned to campus earlier in June. Many basketball players were told by their coaches not to rush back until July, so they’re expected to arrive periodically over the next couple of weeks. Pitino’s summer practices officially begin July 20.
“We’re trying to get them back safely,” Pitino said last month. “Then there’s the next level of what can we do when we’re all together. There are so many variables.”
Athletes on campus have to be screened daily for symptoms and do temperature checks. They’re also encouraged to wear masks around the facilities, to social distance and to sanitize often.
Among Pitino’s players on campus and cleared currently for voluntary workouts are Mitchell, Eric Curry, Jarvis Omersa, Gabe Kalscheur, Isaiah Ihnen, Hunt Conroy and Liam Robbins.
The other seven players, who are on their own outside of Minnesota, still connect on team Zoom calls.
“Everybody knows what you’re supposed to be doing,” Omersa said with regard to following health protocols and training. “If you’re not doing it, that will hurt you in the future.”
Robbins, a 7-footer from Drake, is the first of three transfers so far to join the Gophers. The others are Utah’s Both Gach and Western Michigan’s Brandon Johnson. Robbins is still waiting to hear whether the NCAA will grant him a waiver to play immediately, but he moved in and started voluntary workouts Friday.
“It’s pretty cool,” Robbins said. “It’s already been great meeting Gabe, Eric, Isaiah and Martice in person. They’re all really good guys. So, it’ll be great to meet the rest of the team and get to work.”
When gyms closed in Chicago, Mitchell couldn’t work on much more than ball handling at home. At 190 pounds, he has a long way to go to get himself physically prepared for the Big Ten.
Gophers trainer Ben Felz set a goal for Mitchell since he’s been on campus to put on 20 pounds before the season. He’s on a more extensive diet to gain weight.
“I’m doing more exercises to get my legs stronger,” Mitchell said. “My arms are sore as we speak right now. I know where my [physical] development can take me. Everybody tells me my ability to shoot and dribble at my height is something different.”
The NCAA voted to allow teams to get together for practices for up to eight weeks from July 20 through Sept. 15, or the first day of fall classes.
Pitino and his staff can interact virtually with players but those meetings and in-person voluntary activities combined may not exceed eight hours a week, per NCAA rules.
Watching his new teammates working out in the last week, Mitchell feels excited about the Gophers’ potential and their “combination of strength, athleticism and length.”
More talent will be trickling in soon. Gach arrives Thursday, freshmen Jamal Mashburn Jr. and David Mutaf, Mitchell’s roommates, possibly next week.
Mitchell will be able to show them the new normal in working out on campus under the pandemic.
“I’m getting extra shots up as much as I can,” he said. “But when the gym opens up fully, I’ll probably be sleeping there.”