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The challenges of playing back-to-back games amid a global pandemic

Coaches and players talk about the unique schedules of 2020-21.

NCAA Basketball: Vermont at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Playing college basketball during an ongoing pandemic has brought an array of changes. Amid coaches in masks and socially distanced benches, one of the biggest changes, for mid-major schools in particular, has been the shift to playing back-to-back games in conference play.

Several conferences, including the NEC, America East, Big South, and Missouri Valley, are minimizing travel by having teams play each other twice, on back-to-back days or twice in three days, at the same location.

The common theme among coaches and players dealing with back-to-backs is that it is a unique challenge.

“First, forget about playing the same team, just go with the fact that you’re playing a game almost always less than 24 hours after the [first] game ended,” Winthrop associate head coach Dave Davis said. “There’s a physical challenge, a mindset challenge, there’s a preparation challenge, and then there’s [the challenge] of being able to execute two 40-minute games in a 24 hour period.”

Playing the same team in such a short time frame can seem like deja vu to some, and it can be just as challenging for the players as the coaches.

“That second game on the back-to-back can really catch up to you,” Vermont senior guard Stef Smith said. “For us, we practice so hard and we go at it hard in the weight room and on the court, so it can definitely catch up to some of the older players like myself who have played a lot of games and seen a lot of action.”

In pre-pandemic times, teams would have a chance to decompress and really digest what happened in the game they just played in. With the move to back-to-back games, this process has been sped up completely.

This is where the preparation challenges start to hit. Following its first back-to-back game of the season against Illinois State, the coaching staff at Loyola went to watch replay of that afternoon’s game right away.

“Half of the staff went and watched defense, half watched offense and noticed a couple actions that were tricky against us and they could exploit the second game and clean up,” assistant coach Matt Gordon said.

This isn’t just a Loyola practice, but seems to be what coaching staffs across the country are doing.

“One game ends and we as a staff are watching the game immediately,” Davis said of Winthrop’s strategy. “We are then individually watching the game. So we go through the game two or three times both collectively and individually and we make a prep for basically a walk through with the guys. We’re pouring into prep for game two like it’s the national championship game.”

So you’ve now played game one, spent all night and morning preparing for game two, and now it’s finally time to play that second game. This is where the mental challenges start to show up, according to Smith.

“Being that team that wins the first game of the back-to-back, especially if you win fairly big, you know in the next game the team is going to come out with a lot of fire to try and avenge that loss,” he said. “We beat NJIT by 20 and then they came back and beat us in double OT, they were just a bit hungrier than us.”

“It’s so hard to win both games,” Gallagher said. “You have competitive teams, you have competitive people, I think it’s really, really hard. People have pride in what they do.”

Not only are you having to deal with the mental challenge of going up against a fired up team, but when playing at home you don’t even have a fired up crowd to help you push through those tough second-half minutes.

“We have to get excited about little plays we come up with — whether it’s a charge or forced turnover on the defensive end,” Smith said. “It’s important we stay locked in and provide our own energy.”

While it’s not easy to play and coach in back-to-back games, everyone associated with the sport is just happy to be out there having the opportunity to actually play.

“It’s high octane for two straight days. You get done with the days and you’re mentally and physically exhausted,” Gallagher said. “But it’s fun.”