Similar to his peers during the pandemic, Gophers men's basketball coach Ben Johnson goes into every game with a level of uncertainty about his players being healthy enough to play.
Coming back from a brief COVID-19 pause that resulted in Wednesday's postponement at Penn State, the Gophers, for now, expect to play Saturday against Rutgers at Williams Arena.
Johnson said as of Friday morning, the Gophers met the Big Ten's minimum of seven scholarship players available, but he could only say that for the moment.
"As of right now, we're preparing, we're prepping, and expecting to play," Johnson said. "If somebody comes in and they feel fine in the morning and they don't feel fine in the afternoon, and you wake up and have to test, that's just how things go."
The Gophers (10-5, 1-5 Big Ten) had exactly seven scholarship players available in an 81-71 loss against Iowa on Sunday. Two assistants and four players were out due to illness, injury, and COVID health and safety protocols, including senior Eric Curry recovering from an ankle sprain. Curry's status continues to be day-to-day.
On Monday, the Gophers had further testing that revealed more positive cases to drop them below the scholarship player minimum for Wednesday's game against the Nittany Lions, which hasn't been rescheduled yet.
In the Big Ten, only Iowa and Maryland among the league's 14 schools have not had men's basketball games postponed or canceled due to COVID protocol this season.
The Scarlet Knights (11-6, 5-2) had two games impacted during a COVID pause in late December, but they returned to win six of seven games, including 48-46 Wednesday vs. Iowa.
"We're not going to be the only team that has to face that," Johnson said. "The team that adjusts the best will be successful."
Johnson's first season started off a surprising success with a 10-0 record, but the Gophers haven't won since Dec. 22 against Wisconsin-Green Bay. They have lost four consecutive games since the Dec. 29 game was canceled against Alcorn State due to that team's COVID issues.
After a 13-day break between games, Johnson was disappointed in his team's lackadaisical performance in a 23-point home loss Jan. 4 against Illinois. But he thought the U's past three losses were not from a lack of effort, including a last-second 71-69 loss at Michigan State.
"I don't necessarily measure it by record," Johnson said about judging his team's success this season. "If you look at the last stretch we had, especially the two [hard-fought losses] on the road at Indiana and Michigan State, that's how I measure it."
Leading scorers Jamison Battle and Payton Willis, who have carried the Gophers for most of the season, got some support last weekend with E.J. Stephens' season-high 22 points, but the late comeback still fell short against Iowa.
Curry being sidelined with a bad ankle has been tough to overcome taking away the team's top inside presence in an already thin frontcourt. If Curry can't play Saturday, it would mean relying on senior Charlie Daniels and 7-foot freshman Treyton Thompson, who had a season-high eight points off the bench against Iowa.
"With this type of injury, you don't really push it," Johnson said. "He's done a little bit more every day. We just have to be really smart. I told Eric we need him for the long haul."
The Gophers don't have the depth to withstand injuries or COVID absences like most teams, but Johnson said the turnaround this season starts with a "mentality flip" to become consistently tougher, more aggressive, and play an attacking "downhill" style each game.
"We need to have the personality of being the baddest dudes on the block," he said. "Regardless of who is playing and who is in. That has to be what our program is."