New Mexico St. basketball hoping to weather COVID from base in Phoenix
CLOSE New Mexico State head men’s basketball coach Chris Jans leads a meeting at the
If or when Chris Jans sits down to write his memoirs of a life in basketball, 2020 will be a big part of the narrative.
The New Mexico State head men’s basketball coach and his Aggies find themselves in a bubble of sorts at the Arizona Grand Resort & Spa in Phoenix, about a six-hour drive from campus in Las Cruces. It’s no vacation, but rather the Aggies’ temporary home base as the players work out, practice together and take their online classes, while the coaches and staff work to minimize exposure to COVID-19 and put together some kind of nonconference season for the program.
In a year of so much upheaval in daily life and the things people often take for granted, the Aggies can only try to make the best of a situation caused by strict public health guidelines with regard to coronavirus in their state. They got to Phoenix on Nov. 17.
“Most people I know refer to writing a book someday, and I think this experience will be a large chapter in the book,” Jans said earlier this week. “Certainly it’s affected some more than others, obviously some in the worst way possible, but it’s wreaked havoc in the life that we knew. But when you’re a college basketball coach or a player and you’ve had restrictions placed upon you, you’ve had obstacles in your way to try to do what you love and practice and hopefully compete, that adds a whole new layer to it.
“What we’re going through pales in comparison to what other people are having to deal with, with how the pandemic has affected families, lives or businesses or way of life,” Jans said. “We’re not over here crying about our situation, we’re just grateful and thankful that we’ve had enough support from our university leadership that has allowed us to find a way to fully practice and prepare us for a topsy-turvy college basketball season.”
The Aggies were 11 days into their Phoenix adventure on Friday, and after 10 days of lengthy practices, meetings and video sessions, a break from online classes, catered meals and free time including some splashing around at the resort water park, there was something new to break the routine: an actual game.
Until there wasn’t. A game scheduled for Friday afternoon against a top NAIA team, Arizona Christian of Glendale, was postponed to Sunday after all of the results from both teams’ most recent COVID-19 tests had yet to be received in time to play.
“While we are disappointed about (Friday’s) news, the health and safety of our student-athletes and staff remains our top priority,” Jans said in a statement. “This is a minor bump in the road for our season and we are looking forward to Sunday.”
When it does take the floor for a game, New Mexico State put its 19-game winning streak that dates back to last December — and included a perfect 16-0 run through the Western Athletic Conference — on the line in a game that will count in their season record.
Doña Ana County, where Las Cruces is located, was designated a “red” county based on the ratio of positive tests to population by the New Mexico Department of Health. Per state COVID guidelines, college sports teams are not allowed to practice with full rosters anywhere in New Mexico, so earlier this month New Mexico State went looking out of state for a temporary home for basketball.
A delegation including deputy athletic director Braun Cartwright took a whirlwind tour of sites in Arizona and Nevada, ultimately choosing the Arizona Grand. Now encamped there, Jans and his staff are charged with putting together a non-conference schedule for a program that was 25-6 last season and the top seed in the WAC tournament before everything came to an abrupt end.
“I think we put our student athletes in the best position to be successful,” Cartwright said, “providing them the academic support they need as well as taking into account their mental health.”
It wasn’t easy. Jans admitted he had his doubts that a plan could be worked out. But Director of Athletics Mario Moccia had a longtime connection in Nikki Balich, the executive director of the Arizona Sports & Entertainment Commission, and Balich helped get the Aggies to Phoenix.
“There were a couple of instances where it creeped into my mind, is this really going to happen?” Jans said. “Roadblock after roadblock was placed in front of us, and we were expected to roll with the punches and continue to make personal sacrifices up and down the program. And we were willing and able to do that.
“I know what this program means to people in (Las) Cruces and people on our campus.”
In addition to Jans’ team, the New Mexico State’s women’s basketball team has relocated to Tucson, while the University of New Mexico men and women’s basketball teams are in west Texas.
Cartwright, who is to quarantine for 14 days upon his return to Las Cruces after watching the Aggies play, said the cost of having the team at the resort for five weeks is $79,000, according to the Associated Press. He said the Aggies could extend their stay in Phoenix if need be, and Jans said the team could move operations to another location. Conference play isn’t scheduled to start until Jan. 8, 2021, and the program is looking for places to hold games in the Valley.
One option is GCU Arena, the home of WAC rival Grand Canyon. The Aggies play annual non-conference games against in-state rival New Mexico and nearby Texas El-Paso, two games Moccia said he hopes to schedule.
Ideally, New Mexico State would like nonconference games that don’t require flights. A second game has been scheduled, set for next Tuesday night against another NAIA program, Benedictine University-Mesa, to be played at the PHHacility, a basketball complex in east Phoenix.
“It’s not a daily thing, it’s an every-other-hour thing where we’re talking to other teams across the country. But we’re no different from everybody else,” Jans said. “Everybody’s having to deal with shutdowns.”
Jans said this week that some verbal agreements were in place for other opponents and hoped to announce those soon, but he expects a lot of games to come together “on the fly.”
New Mexico State Aggies players and support staff relax in a dining room at the Arizona Grand Resort & Spa, where the basketball team is staying due to COVID-19 restrictions in their home state. (Photo: New Mexico State University Athletics)
In the meantime, players are being administered COVID-19 tests three times a week at the Arizona Grand. New Mexico State has gone to all online classes, which will resume next week.
The team’s practice courts are in a ballroom on the resort grounds, the low ceiling making for some adjustments such as long-throw inbounds passes from one end of the court to the other, and causing more missed shots until players could get used to the setup.
“It’s definitely been different and something I’ve had to get used to,” senior guard Evan Gilyard II said. He was shocked at first, knowing the team would have to relocate.
“I just look at it as an adventure, and I get the opportunity to do what I love and at the same time, I still get an opportunity to get an education.”
Junior guard C.J. Roberts calls his daughter every night on FaceTime, having had to cancel her visit to Las Cruces scheduled earlier in November. On Thursday, there was Thanksgiving dinner for all at the hotel.
It’s a short walk from the players’ rooms to the court, which they have access to at all times of the day. The only time players can leave the “bubble” is for games, barring an unforeseen emergency, and everyone with the Aggies tries to avoid other resort guests.
“I might feel different on Day 20, but from a head coach’s perspective I love it,” Jans said. “Because it’s what we love to do and we get to do it all day long without distractions. It’s not as if we don’t love having our outside life other than basketball, but when you’re almost forced to think basketball 24-7, it’s what you do.”
MORE: Should New Mexico’s college teams be crossing state lines to avoid pandemic restrictions?
Get in touch with Jose Romero at [email protected]. Find him on Twitter at @RomeroJoseM.