As recently as a few weeks ago, it was a possibility that the Whitworth men’s basketball season would be over by now.
But with the rescheduling of contests against Pacific Lutheran and Whitman – casualties of a COVID-19 pause earlier this season – and the addition of games Friday and Saturday against George Fox, the Pirates’ March schedule is suddenly full again.
“We hardly ever get to go this deep into March,” junior guard Garrett Paxton said. “Granted, it’s not a tournament, but it’s six more games.”
And so the Pirates, now 8-5 overall and 6-2 in the Northwest Conference, are attempting to take full advantage, hoping to play 19 games amid a pandemic, in a season that might end up being even longer than a normal one given that they started practicing two weeks earlier than usual.
“If you would have said that we’d get 19 games back in November, we all would have been ecstatic,” Pirates coach Damion Jablonski said.
The George Fox games were made official on Monday, another impromptu addition to the schedule. The Bruins are the only one of the conference’s five Oregon-based teams to get in a game this season, an exhibition against Division I Idaho State on Feb. 15.
Two other Oregon schools – Willamette and Lewis & Clark – announced earlier in the season they wouldn’t play men’s or women’s basketball games this year.
However, George Fox, Pacific and Linfield now have on their schedules eight games – four against each other – during March and April. If all those games hold, it would give the Northwest Conference a semblance of a balanced season, even if the games were almost entirely played in de facto Washington and Oregon divisions.
For Jablonski and the Pirates, the season has been one without a steady rhythm, which has left them with a rare roster conundrum: Who, exactly, comprises their usual rotation?
“It really feels like it is to some degree starting from scratch,” Jablonski said. “We don’t have (junior) JT (McDermott) back still, and the other guys definitely suffered from some COVID fatigue, and getting back has been tough. Meanwhile you have other guys filling in in roles during that time.
“I could never imagine being on March 1 and not having definite rotational roles established, but that’s where we are.”
To wit: Paxton is the only player to start all 13 games; just three others have played in all of them; and, arguably, 12 different players have made their way into the eight-man rotation at some point during the season.
Consider how the Pirates matched up each of the last three weekends. Feb. 12 and 13, they beat Puget Sound twice at the Fieldhouse despite being without four starters who were working their way back through the COVID-19 protocol.
On Feb. 19 and 20, Whitworth returned regular starters Rowan Anderson, Liam Fitzgerald and Miguel Lopez and split a pair of games at Pacific Lutheran, which currently leads the NWC with a 7-1 record.
Last weekend, the Pirates split two games at Whitman, but the Blues are not like last year’s team that beat Whitworth for the NWC tournament title. These Blues are 3-5 this season playing an entirely different style of basketball under first-year coach John Lamanna.
“It was different not seeing the typical faces or the typical coach that I’ve been used to,” Paxton said, “but at the end of the day it’s still the Battle of Whits, and it’s always a rivalry.”
Yet much remains for the Pirates to accomplish this month, in Jablonski’s estimation, even though there is no postseason to play in or for.
“Ultimately we’re going to measure our success by how close we come to reaching our potential as a team,” he said. “In any given year that may or may not result in winning a championship.
“I think where we were before we had our COVID sickness showed a lot of what our potential was, when we were playing really well against (Division II) Seattle Pacific, and really tough defense, and sharing the basketball, and the variety of ways we could score.”
Now the Pirates will see if they can finish the way they’d like to every season: by winning some games in March.
“We’re looking to finish the season strong and see how we can win these next six games. Later we’ll focus on whatever next (season) brings,” Paxton said. “COVID’s taught us you can never look that far in the future or you’ll miss what’s right in front of you.”