Every basketball coach and program in the country are grappling with COVID-19 in some capacity, ranging from an abruptly-ended season to budget cuts and everything in between.
Head coach Dan Burt and Duquesne women’s basketball are no exception.
In March, Nothing But Nylon wrote about the international flavor of the Duquesne program, which had players from seven different countries on its most recent roster and has collected foreign nationals to competed for it for years. COVID-19 presented some unique problems for the Dukes.
Fortunately, the student aspect of Duquesne’s student-athletes helped in a major way.
Junior guard Anie-Pier Samson, a Quebec native, is a biomedical engineering major. Before much of the country woke up to the coronavirus, Samson was feeding her coaches and teammates crucial information that helped them be prepared.
“(She) is the smartest player I’ve ever coached,” Dan Burt said. “She presents at conferences all over North America on pathogens and viruses. She knew what this was all about, and she came and talked to us as a staff and a team and explained it with simple details for us basketball coaches who aren’t the brightest.”
This gave Duquesne a leg up on getting its players across the world in a timely manner, plus some help from the NCAA, which granted the school’s ask to pay for players’ emergency plane tickets.
“We were very fortunate that we were always meeting in small group numbers of 10 or less, and we were able to get our kids home all over the world pretty much before anybody,” Burt explained. “Kudos to the NCAA. We applied for an exemption where we could pay for their plane tickets and fly them home wherever they were from, and they agreed to that. It gave us a lot of flexibility to get our players back home.”
Some of Duquesne’s foreign players chose to stay in America or were not allowed to reenter their home nation, and there were some difficulties getting freshman center Precious Johnson back to Sweden, with some last-second alterations to her itinerary being made to include some train rides and a new flight after her original one was cancelled upon arrival at the airport. But it was all solved, at least as best as possible, and now the biggest issue is the stuff that was left behind on campus.
The help that the university has provided Burt, his staff and his players through this has the coach feeling overwhelmed.
“I’ll probably be breaking the law. I’m going to get it,” Burt said, jokingly. “We’ll wait until we get the all-clear from our governor that allows us to be out to do those sorts of things. The university has been simply incredible in how they’ve handled this virus and their response to it for our students and for our staff. I cannot be prouder of what Duquesne University has done for people. I’m just overwhelmed, to be very honest with you. They’ve been incredible, and that’s everything from letting the kids still use their apartments to store things, helping pay for them to fly home, having their books shipped there, not making deductions in staff pay and being very open and transparent in how they’re running the university. They’ve been fantastic. We’re incredibly lucky.”
Now that a lot of the initial rush of evacuating campus and enacting distance is gone, Burt and his team have to look at what comes next. The program is predicated on finding foreign talent and bringing it to Pittsburgh. COVID-19 can make that much more challenging.
Dan Burt and his family go to Europe each summer, visiting his wife’s family and enjoying another part of the world. While he’s over there, though, he will do some recruiting, attending tournaments and scouting out potential prospects. The Burt family suspended all of its travel until at least August, and even if he does get over there, there’s no guarantee of basketball events happening.
It goes deeper than that, though.
“We’re in a situation where we’re fortunate that we have three verbal commitments out of the five scholarships that we have open for next year in the ’21 class, so we’re ahead. We feel comfortable,” Burt said. “My greater concern is that all three of those kids are international players, and we just had our president talk about stopping immigration. So, that throws a wrench into things, and we don’t know. You don’t want to ever lose a recruiting class, but we have a young group of players, and I feel very confident that they’re going to help us become an elite-level team. If we would have to, worst case scenario, take a hit where our commitments would not be able to come because of immigration policies, we would certainly have to recruit in the spring and replace those.”
Burt is hoping it doesn’t come close to that, and was reassuring that the program has put itself in a positive position to deal with these sorts of uncertainties. It would do real harm if continued indefinitely, but even a disaster this year could be mitigated.
“When you have 15 on scholarship, you can only play five,” he said. “That’s why having redshirts has been really beneficial, like we’ve done. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve redshirted kids, and they have experience already. So, if something happens where all of a sudden, we’re not able to get kids here, we’ll take a hit for a year. We just can’t take a hit for two years. We should be okay.”
The coach said he and his staff have been working out multiple plans so the program can be ready for whatever ends up happening with the virus.
“You have to prepare for a reduced schedule, a flipped schedule, a delayed schedule and status quo. Those are four completely different scenarios,” Dan Burt said. “A reduction in games: is your schedule flipped? That’s kind of like delayed. Instead of us being a two-semester sport, do we simply only play in the spring, or do we only play in the fall? Are we going to play in the summer? And then, what happens if it’s status quo, and we come out of this and maybe we started school in September or October?
“You have to prepare for all those scenarios, and within those four types of scenarios, you have to worry about your budgeting, your recruiting, your players, your scheduling,” he continued. “Then, to throw a further wrench into that, the building of our new facility has been shut down, so we will be on the road for every game this next year. Should be fun.”
Needless to say, there’s no quick fix.
“I’m certainly not looking just at the next couple weeks to months or two months,” Dan Burt explained. “I’m not looking at four to eight weeks. I’m literally planning out for the next 12 to 16 months on four different scenarios and models.”