At first, Michigan basketball was nervous to play at Purdue on Friday night.
Not because it was a crucial road game against a team that had won four consecutive games and had yet to lose at Mackey Arena this season.
No, the Wolverines were nervous because of the current reality of college basketball.
The Boilermakers announced Friday afternoon that guard Sasha Stefanovic had tested positive for COVID-19 and would miss the next three contests, including Friday’s game.
Michigan had learned of the news the day before, although it didn’t know who had tested positive. And at that juncture, the Wolverines had some hesitancy about proceeding as scheduled.
“Definitely,” said forward Isaiah Livers. “At first it was a lot of us. I’ll talk about me first of all, I was opposed to it.”
So why did Michigan get on the bus, travel to West Lafayette and play Friday’s game (a 70-53 win for the Wolverines)?
“Once I found out they were all gonna get PCRs after and it was only one guy, he’s been quarantined, and he had been away, it was like OK, we can work with this,” Livers said.
“At the end of the day, we just had to trust them. We’re in a day of age where we just gotta trust coaches. Matt Painter’s a great guy, he recruited me, coach Howard even commended him, he was just super helpful in the situation, wasn’t trying to hold back anything and try and get someone to forfeit or anything. They just wanted to play basketball, just like I wanted to.”
According to Painter after the game, Stefanovic “started to feel bad Wednesday morning” and took two tests that both came back negative. But the Boilermakers recognized Stefanovic was experiencing “a lot of symptoms” and “knew there was a good chance he was going to be positive,” Painter said. They asked Stefanovic to return to his residence and stay inside his room the entire day.
“Then the next day he had a positive test for an antigen, then he had a positive on the PCR,” Painter explained. “So we had to wait for that second test. So that would’ve been on Thursday. So that’s when we knew for sure and then we were just working out the details and obviously we released it tonight before the game.”
According to Painter, Stefanovic “did not practice at all.”
“We practiced twice knowing we wouldn’t probably have him,” Painter said. “We didn’t know for sure but he had too many symptoms. We knew it was coming through.”
As the situation progressed, Painter contacted both Michigan and Ohio State, which hosted the Boilermakers on Tuesday night (Stefanovic played 28 minutes in the upset win over the Buckeyes). He was in close communication with Howard, and when the Boilermakers discovered that Stefanovic did, indeed, have the coronavirus, Michigan requested that Purdue’s entire team take PCR tests, which are regarded as more accurate than rapid tests (also known as antigen tests).
“Michigan wanted our whole team to take a PCR then, too, just to make sure everything is good,” Painter said, “which we honored and I think that was a good move also. Then obviously we were all negative on that PCR.”
At that point, Howard left it up to Michigan’s players and staff members. He said he spoke to every member of the program to ensure that “everyone felt comfortable, not just me.”
“They all have a voice when it comes to a serious situation like this,” Howard said. “They all felt comfortable with coming here and playing.”
As it turns out, Purdue’s communication won over players like Livers, who said the Boilermakers were “transparent.”
“We weren’t gonna come bus down here, or even come down here if they weren’t being totally honest and straight up with us,” Livers said. “And I think that’s what really led to us making the ultimate decision after practice was, ‘You know, they’re telling the truth, they’re getting their guys PCR tests, they’re all getting tested after practice, why not, let’s go play a game, they’re gonna miss a guy’. But Matt Painter, they said they were ready to go, so we were ready to go.”
Added guard Eli Brooks: “Yeah, I thought about it. Mostly I just want to be there for everybody on the team and respect their decision of how they were feeling about the situation. But for me, they were transparent, everything that we didn’t know we knew, and that allowed me to make my decision and everybody else to make their decision. That’s all you can ask because we’re playing in a time that is uncertain, that people are telling the truth. That’s the best way to do it. That goes a long way.”
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