KOKOMO, Ind. — When the Indiana University Kokomo men’s basketball team returned to practice February 1, after a six-week break imposed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Coach Eric Echelbarger took a vote.
Did they want to start the season over, play some games, and see what happened in the conference tournament? Or did they want to call it a season and be done?
They chose to come back, and by doing so, earned a place in the River States Conference (RSC) tournament — and potentially another run at the NAIA championship.
Whatever the final scores are on their games, Echelbarger takes pride in their determination to make a comeback and finish what they started.
“Either way, I think this team wins,” he said. “Most teams wouldn’t accept this kind of challenge. The fact they want to come back shows their resilience. I have a great deal of respect for our guys for wanting to do that.”
It’s a contrast to the 2019-2020 season, which saw the Cougars laser-focused on a deep run in the NAIA tournament. The team beat Madonna University for a Sweet 16 berth, before the entire event was shut down, as the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“That’s the day all of our lives changed,” Echelbarger said. “It means the world to them to be able to practice and play again. It’s a healthy outlet, it’s their social group, this team is their family. Being away from each other, and not being able to compete, has been hard.”
Just before the Cougars’ first game since December 19, the team watched the drawing for the RSC tournament, learning they will face Oakland City University in the opening round Monday at the Student Activities and Events Center.
In a normal year, only the top 8 teams in the conference would play for the championship. But because of interrupted schedules that made ranking teams impossible, conference leaders decided to allow all 12 teams still playing to participate in the tournament.
Given that all of the IU regional teams suspended play from mid-December to February, Echelbarger said they appreciate the conference’s flexibility.
“They could have decided we weren’t eligible because of the break,” he said, adding that he allowed his team to vote on if they wanted to continue, or call the season over when they could come back.
“They all voted that they wanted to return, and they wanted to play, so that’s what we did,” he said.
The road ahead of them isn’t easy — the Cougars travel to Oakland City University, near Evansville, for a regular conference game Saturday, then face the Mighty Oaks again Monday, February 22, in the opening round of the tournament.
The winner of Monday’s game will move on to play West Virginia Tech, in Beckley, West Virginia, Wednesday, February 24. The semifinal is Saturday, February 27, followed by the championship on Tuesday, March 2.
The conference champion and runner up qualify for the national tournament.
The Cougars’ focus is different than last year, Echelbarger said.
“In a normal season, you have specific goals, but this has not been a normal season,” he said. “Our goal is to be the best we can, play the best we can play, and see what happens. We’re going to compete as hard as we can, and see where it falls.”