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By Jeff White (
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– The abrupt end to the 2019-20 season meant, among other things, that the University of Virginia men’s basketball team would not have an opportunity to compete for a second straight NCAA title. It also sent the Cavaliers into an offseason unlike any other.
With the University all but shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the courts and the weight room at John Paul Jones Arena are off-limits to head coach Tony Bennett’s players, most of whom are not in Charlottesville anyway. 
All of which adds to Mike Curtis’ challenge. Curtis, a former UVA player, is the longtime strength and conditioning coach for men’s basketball at his alma mater. It’s his job to start preparing the Wahoos’ returning players and incoming recruits for the 2020-21 season, and to do so remotely, while working from home.
“In this kind of scenario, I’m trying not to look at it in the form of a setback,” said Curtis, who has two degrees from UVA and is working on a third, a doctorate in sports medicine. “I’m trying to look at it as a challenge for me to still try to find a way for us to make marginal gains and prepare our guys the best I can to be able to [perform well] when we have an opportunity to get back.”
The Hoos finished 23-7 in 2019-20 and ended the season with an eight-game winning streak. Twelve players are scheduled to return from that team: Kihei Clark, Tomas Woldetensae, Jay Huff, Sam Hauser, Francisco Caffaro, Kody Stattmann, Justin McKoy, Casey Morsell and Kadin Shedrick, plus walk-ons Jayden Nixon, Chase Coleman and Austin Katstra. Three recruits signed with UVA in November: Jabri Abdur-Rahim, Reece Beekman and Carson McCorkle.
“The biggest thing is going to be mitigation of the injury risk that is going to be associated with most of these kids,” Curtis said, “because they have not been able to stress joints and tissues and all those things in such a way that will prepare them for the games. My biggest challenge now is creating some type of training program and stimulus over the course of the summer that’s going to better prepare them to be able to tolerate basketball type of workloads, once we get back to that point.”
Injury prevention is always a point of emphasis for Curtis, who’s overseen the Cavaliers’ strength and conditioning for all 11 of Bennett’s years in Charlottesville. In each of the past two seasons, UVA has had a full complement of players––or close to it––available for most games.
“Strength is obviously part of my job,” Curtis said, “but for us my biggest concern is making sure that our guys stay on the court. That’ll be my challenge in terms of creating some type of training program that tries to mimic some of the biomechanical demands of the game, when you don’t have the ability to go out and play and shoot and change direction and jump and do all those things that stress the tissues and joints the way that they normally would be. But I think there are ways to get stronger, even though you may not have the fancy tools and gadgets that I typically would have.
“Bo Jackson and Herschel Walker and all those guys found ways to get strong using body-weight calisthenics and things of that nature, so hopefully we can still find more general fitness and high volume type approaches to make some marginal gains in terms of stress.”
Stattmann is back in his native Australia, but the rest of the Cavaliers are in the United States, spread from Virginia to California.
Curtis has been in regular contact with all of the players. “Kody has been a little bit of a challenge, just because of the time difference,” Curtis said. “But the rest of them seem to be doing well and adjusting. We’ve had a couple Zoom meetings. We do check-ins on Friday, just to make sure guys are holding up OK and see if they have any questions, but all of them seem to be adjusting somewhat normally to this scenario that we’re in now.”
After UVA switched to online classes after last month and most students headed home, Curtis polled the players about their access to workout equipment. He learned that most had little, if any.
Some of the players, like Clark in Los Angeles, have baskets at home that they can shoot on, “but in terms of weights, none of them really had anything at their homes,” Curtis said. “Some of them, because their parents were administrators or teachers or coaches, had access to facilities that were associated with local high schools or middle schools, but those have been shut down too, so they don’t even have access to that.”
And so Curtis sent what he called a “remote fitness package” to each player. “I just tried to put together a package of tools that would allow them to train as best they could in a basement, outside or whatever place that they may have, to just try to maintain a level of fitness during this time.”
The players received weight vests that allow them to “create some kind of external load,” Curtis said, “and they also got suspension training systems so they could do rows and other [exercises]. But for the most part it’s body-weight oriented.”
Body-weight exercises include push-ups, pull-ups, chin-ups and squat jumps.
“A few guys have inquired about actually purchasing weights,” Curtis said. “Obviously we can’t provide something of that magnitude to them, but some of them have wanted to [buy them]. What I’ve sent out at this point are things that are centered on body weight, but we’ll adjust those based on what they have access to.”
When the players are on Grounds, it’s easier for Curtis and Randy Bird, UVA’s director of sports nutrition, to make sure they eat well-balanced meals. That’s another challenge Curtis is dealing with these days.
“The hope is that all of them have access to high-quality food, but the reality may be that they don’t,” he said. “But on Zoom last Friday we actually brought Randy in on that meeting, just so we could reinforce [the importance of proper nutrition] … And I’ll periodically bring Randy on as we go through our Friday check-ins, just to make sure that we’re reinforcing nutritional habits that are going to be supportive of meeting goals.”
The players trying to gain good weight may find that to be difficult this offseason because of the limitations on their training. “But as long as we can make sure they’re eating quality foods,” Curtis said, “we still may be able to put on some lean mass and get stronger, probably more through a volume-based fitness approach, as opposed to some of the more specialized things that we could do if we had all the tools we typically had in the weight room.”
Curtis works closely not only with Bird, but with Ethan Saliba, UVA’s head athletic trainer. Each of the incoming recruits missed at least part of his senior season with an injury.
Beekman, a guard from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, wasn’t sidelined for long, and he returned to lead Scotlandville Magnet High to its fourth straight Division I state title. But Abdur-Rahim and McCorkle each suffered a season-ending injury.
“They’re starting to get back and engaged in some physical activity,” Curtis said, “but obviously access to courts and everything else is very limited right now. They don’t have the tools and access that they would have had, in regards to getting to a gym or a weight room or something like that.”
But even before the pandemic disrupted daily life in the U.S., Curtis had sent each of the recruits a training program, he said, “and the reality of it is, our entry-level programs for the most part were centered on body-weight exercises, so it doesn’t veer that far from what they would have started with [in years past]. It’s just the ability to kind of pick up some heavier things in the form of dumbbells or kettleballs is probably a little bit absent from that programming now. But it hasn’t changed our level of communication. We actually probably have communicated with them a little bit more, given that a couple of them have some things that we need to monitor before they get here.”