Coronavirus issues cancel Notre Dame hoops visit to Howard

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

It was supposed to be a special basketball game on a special day, and it still will be. Just not this season. Not this calendar year.

On Saturday, Howard University announced that its home game against Notre Dame, scheduled for Monday afternoon — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — is canceled because coronavirus issues with its men’s basketball program.

“We are all incredibly disappointed by this cancellation,” Howard Director of Athletics Kery Davis said in a statement. “This was a tremendous opportunity to bring national exposure to our basketball team and the University. However, it goes without saying that the health and welfare of our student-athletes is our priority.”

Howard (1-4) has not played since a Dec. 18 win over Hampton. The program had its next three games affected by pandemic issues. The Bison have been on pause for coronavirus issues since Jan. 8. The program learned following virus testing on Friday that it would not be able to return to the court for games or practices because of additional positive tests.

Notre Dame was set to become the first program from a Power Five conference — the Irish play in the Atlantic Coast Conference — to visit Howard, an HBCU (Historically Black College/University) since 2010. The game was to be played on the Howard campus at 2,700-seat Burr Gymnasium and televised nationally by FOX Sports. Gus Johnson, a 1990 Howard graduate, was set to do the play-by-play.

“I am disappointed that we will not be able to make the trip on Monday, but we are committed to going back in 2022 to make this game happen,” Irish coach Mike Brey said in a statement Saturday afternoon. “We hope that by next season, we will have a packed Burr Gymnasium, be able to invite special guests connected with both teams in the D.C. area and have the experience we envisioned when we scheduled this game in the summer of 2020.”

Brey had initially pushed to play Howard in South Bend this season, then make the return trip to Washington in 2021-22 when Howard could have fans in its stands. Brey originally believed it would mean more to both programs if a sellout crowd could be included. Given the civil unrest last summer, and with the importance of Black Lives Matter, Brey decided it best for his program to play at Howard this season.

Howard is coached by Kenny Blakeney. Like Brey and Irish associated head coach Rod Balanis, Blakeney is a graduate of DeMatha (Md.) Catholic High School. Blakeney was recruited by Brey to play at Duke. When Blakeney was a freshman at DeMatha, Brey was a history teacher and junior varsity head coach for legendary Morgan Wootten at the high school in Hyattsville, Md.

One of Blakeney’s assistant coaches at Howard is former Irish point guard and Maryland native Eric Atkins.

The Howard game had been on the minds of those in the Notre Dame program over the last few weeks. The reasons were twofold. Howard’s coronavirus issues were a concern, as were recent events at the U.S. Capitol, located two and a half miles from the Howard campus. A source close to the Notre Dame program told the Tribune last week that the Irish were “on edge” about the ongoing issues in Washington. Given the importance of the game, the Irish remained in favor of playing in D.C. next week.

The Howard game is the seventh this season impacted by coronavirus for Notre Dame. The Irish have had four non-league games and three ACC contests affected by the pandemic. All seven games are a result of issues with opposing teams.

Notre Dame hoped to fill Monday’s now open date with an ACC home contest against Georgia Tech, but that never materialized. The Yellow Jackets are scheduled to play Wednesday at home against No. 12 Clemson and next Saturday at No. 18 Virginia. Shoe-horning a Monday trip to South Bend would’ve meant three games in six days, something the program apparently wasn’t willing to do. The Yellow Jackets had their game Saturday against North Carolina State postponed.

The Georgia Tech home game originally scheduled for Jan. 6 was postponed because of coronavirus.

No Howard game means that the Irish likely will have another seven days off between games. Following Saturday’s home game against Boston College, Notre Dame is not scheduled to play again until a Jan. 24 game at Miami (Fla.). Adding a non-league game in between remains a possibility.

Monday’s cancellation means a second possible trip to Washington this season is off for Notre Dame. The ACC planned to hold its conference tournament at Capital One Arena, located in the Chinatown area of downtown. The league has since shifted the tournament to the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum.

Notre Dame basketball has seen both of its scheduled trips to Washington canceled because of coronavirus issues.