The changes off the floor have almost been immeasurable for Mountain East Conference basketball teams like the University of Charleston and West Virginia State University.
Due to COVID-19, they’re just tipping off their seasons on Thursday — two months later than usual — and find themselves tackling a reduced schedule of 16 conference-only games, compared to 28 overall games last season.
Just as noteworthy, when UC and State play their home games at 7:30 p.m. Thursday — the Golden Eagles hosting Concord and the Yellow Jackets hosting Glenville State — no fans will be in attendance. The MEC isn’t allowing fans at any athletic event for the time being.
On top of that, UC has seen major changes on the floor getting prepared for the 2021 season. The Golden Eagles lost two of their top three scorers from a year ago — Drew Rackley and Devon Robinson, both first-team All-MEC selections.
“It’s tough,’’ said Golden Eagles coach Dwaine Osborne. “Drew and Devon were not only two of our top three scorers, but maybe the most significant part of that is they were our two leaders last year. So not only do we have to replace their scoring and rebounding, but we lost a lot of leadership and that’s probably where you have the most concerns as a coach.
“We’re not going to find one player to replace what those guys did — Devon led the league in rebounding and Drew had almost 100 3-pointers. Collectively, we’ll have to do a good job replacing the void of those two guys across the board as far as scoring, rebounding, leadership and overall production.’’
UC (25-6 overall last season, 17-5 in the MEC) does bring back some firepower in Lamont McManus (14.5 points per game), Seth O’Neal (13.5), Keith Williams (9.3) and Eddie Colbert III (7.8). In addition, a pair of Division I transfers have joined the program, Isaiah Gable (Southeast Missouri State) and Joe Lanzi (Denver), as well as Shaunn Monroe, who led Urbana in scoring last season. Urbana was an MEC member until the school closed last spring.
With zero non-conference games to serve as a tuneup and facing a condensed season, Osborne realizes there’s a lot of uncertainty for his revamped roster.
“Hopefully I can tell you Thursday if we’re ready or not,’’ Osborne said. “The hope is we have four guys back who played a lot last year, two guys who played a lot of minutes at the Division I level, Shaunn Monroe, who played a lot of minutes at Urbana as a freshman and two, three other guys who were here last year. We have an idea of what we need to do and what the culture needs to look like.’’
UC, ranked No. 3 in the league’s preseason poll, fell to West Liberty 73-60 in last year’s title game at the MEC tournament in Wheeling and was scheduled to play Mercyhurst in the Atlantic Regional at West Liberty when COVID shut down the season. Concord (12-18, 8-14) returns a pair of double-figure scorers in Malik Johnson (13.2) and Ethan Heller (11.6).
West Virginia State, on the other hand, returns its top three scorers from last season and has been voted fourth in the MEC preseason coaches poll.
Jackets coach Bryan Poore said preseason preparations were a bit disjointed for his players since they had to pause three different times for positive COVID cases.
“You’ve just got to adapt and adjust,’’ Poore said. “It’s been a different fall and preseason. We didn’t really do any conditioning because we knew we weren’t going to play in November, so why do all that conditioning? When you take the Christmas break, you’re just going to lose it anyway.
“So we’ve had kind of a different approach to this through the fall. I like where we’re at right now. I wish we had a couple non-conference games to tune up and have some film on our opponents before we play them, but it’s the same for everybody, only that [Glenville] has a whole new team, so we’re going into the first game blind not knowing what they’re going to do.’’
Glenville State (14-15, 11-11) sported five double-figure scorers last season, but returns just one in Hegel Augustin (16.0). The Yellow Jackets (19-10, 13-9) bring back Glen Abram (18.9), Jeremiah Moore (15.5) and Anthony Pittman (15.1), who was also the team’s top rebounder (7.9).
“I think we’re in pretty good shape,’’ Poore said. “We’re deep, we’re athletic, we’re versatile. We’ve had eight, nine practices since Christmas, so I think we’re in a good spot. I think our guys will be able to adjust on the fly pretty good.’’
MEC women’s games also debut Thursday, with UC and State hosting the same foes as the men — Concord at Charleston and Glenville at State, both at 5:30 p.m.
The Golden Eagle women were 23-7 last season overall and 17-5 in MEC games. They lost to Notre Dame in last year’s tournament semifinals. West Virginia State (10-20, 8-16) fell to Glenville in the quarterfinal round.