NEW BRITAIN - Winter break allowed the Central Connecticut State basketball teams their first opportunities to leave campus for an extended period of time and enjoy the holidays with their families.
Everyone in the men’s program agreed about how much they all needed this time, but head coach Donyell Marshall had two messages for everyone: keep safe and rest up.
“For us it was mainly about making sure you stay healthy,” Marshall said. “Wear your mask, try to stay away from large gatherings so we can come back and continue the season. Obviously, a lot of places, gyms were closed at times, so it was [about] trying to get into the gym or try and do whatever you can to stay in some type of shape.”
Nowadays, nothing has the ability to disrupt a season as quickly, or as dangerously, as coronavirus, so doing everything possible to avoid a positive test was paramount. Marshall also made sure his players did some work on their mental health as well. Understanding the stress his players are under, he wanted to free their minds of basketball for the majority of the break.
“I tried to have them not think about basketball and sports,” Marshall said. “That was the first time a lot of them got to see their families since August. [We wanted them] to go home, have a good time, but just be smart in the process.”
With players coming from around the country, this was the first chance for many to see their families at all since arriving at school in August. Junior Tre Mitchell transferred to CCSU from Phoenix College in his hometown of Phoenix, Arizona.
“I enjoyed that time,” Mitchell said. “I have never been away from my family for that long. It’s not like they’re a drive away so being able to go all the way back home was definitely needed.”
The team believes the time off brought everyone back to campus rejuvenated and it is reflecting in practice. After finishing the 2020 portion of the season with their second win of the season, the Blue Devils (2-5, 2-2 Northeast Conference) picked up right where they left off upon returning to New Britain.
“This has been our best string of practices in days in a row,” Marshall said. “I think we’ve had some good practices, but then we had some hiccups. I think over the last couple of days we’ve actually had some very good practices, very competitive. The one thing I like is they’ve been doing a lot of trash talking to each other where they’ve been bringing the competitiveness out with each other. I think it’s really helping us out right now. This is the first time I’ve really seen all season that they’re really enjoying practice. But they know how important these two games are coming up, with the rest of the season as well, and I think their focus has been really good.”
With the team feeling good, CCSU is getting ready to enter the heart of its schedule where it will face Northeast Conference opponents, and will be able to show how much the Blue Devils are continuing to grow. They start the year with a pair of games against Bryant, which is 7-2 overall with a 3-1 conference record and three notable non-conference wins over Stony Brook, UMass and the University of New Hampshire.
“I think the vibe is still high,” junior Nigel Scantlebury said. “In practice, we’re still rolling. I think we’re looking a lot better, a lot more together nowadays. It seems like the camaraderie is growing and everybody is trusting each other.”
Marshall expect the key against Bryant will be whichever team is able to lock down on defense and stop the other team from moving the ball quickly like they both want to. Playing competitively in both of these games would show other teams in the conference that the Blue Devils are much improved from last year.
“With Bryant having their wins over UMass, everybody thinks Bryant is the big dog of the conference right now,” Marshall said. “We have to make sure that we stay focused and if they get a lead in the first two or three minutes, it’s over. We have to continuously keep fighting and continuously know what we need to do. We know that we can play with them, if we go in there and play as well as we know we can play.”
Defensively, the key will be on the perimeter. On offense, the CCSU players learned the noticeable difference between when they share the ball and when they do not. As the team believes it is taking the next step in its development, how well they stay together when challenged will be important.
“Just being a team, we’re much better when we’re playing together,” Scantlebury said. “You can definitely see when we’re playing together. It’s a lot of fun, everybody’s hitting shots, playing great defense, the bench has great energy. It’s just a fun environment to be around.”
Matt Hornick can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org