The theme around the Winona State University basketball offices is simple: You don’t know how much you love something until it’s taken away from you.
When the world came to a screeching halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic, basketball was taken away from Todd Eisner and his Warriors. College basketball teams around the country will tip-off today, but Winona State –– and the rest of its Division II counterparts –– will have to wait a little bit longer. On Friday, they can start practicing. And the Warriors’ season-opener is on tap for Jan. 2 when they travel to face the University of Minnesota Duluth.
College basketball is back, and so is Eisner’s joy.
"We’ve all been given a new appreciation for the opportunity to be a college basketball coach or a college student-athlete,” Eisner said. “We have to remember that long-term. We’re very fortunate to do what we do. Our players are very fortunate for the opportunity that Winona State gives them. It’s been great to be back. We’re excited about starting Friday.”
With four starters returning, Eisner and the Warriors have high expectations for the 2020-21 campaign.
Kevion Taylor is a points-scoring machine who splashed 109 3-pointers last year while simultaneously leading the team with 7.3 rebounds per game. Andrea Lo Biondo is a sweet-shooting Italian big man who came into his own in 2019-20. Alec Rosner and Devin Whitelow will anchor the backcourt. Both of them shot better than 40 percent from behind the arc last year, and Whitelow –– a Peoria, Illinois native –– is an absolute bulldog.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have Devin in our program for the fourth year,” Eisner said. “He’s the consummate Peoria point guard that won’t let anyone out-tough him or out-work him. Dev says when you’re from Peoria, you’re from the trenches. He plays like that. He’s a great leader.”
Winona State also has the ultimate X-Factor. Former Caledonia multi-sport superstar Owen King spent two years at South Dakota State before transferring to join the Warriors. King will have the opportunity to fill in for the electric Caleb Wagner, who led WSU in points (20.8) and assists (3.8) per game.
“He’s such a great young man,” Eisner said. “The skill set that he brings to our program and the basketball IQ is something we’re really looking forward to bringing to our program. He’s been everything we hoped that he would be. We’re pumped about getting him out on the court on Jan. 2 or whenever that might be. We’re so excited about him.”
Nick Klug, Luke Martens, Dalante Peyton, South Dakota State transfer Alou Dillon and a high-level recruiting class will give Eisner's team plenty of other weapons. On the court, the Warriors will be doing what they typically do: knocking down plenty of 3-pointers.
But off the court, life will be different. In order to limit potential exposure to the coronavirus, Winona State will only play NSIC teams this season. Instead of playing two teams per weekend, the Warriors will now play doubleheaders against the same team every weekend. On one hand, it’ll be easier to scout all week as they prepare to play one team. But the ability to out-scheme an opponent could be minimalized. Instead, it’ll come down to execution.
“If someone is good enough to prepare a Friday and Saturday game plan that’s completely different, then good for them, but we won’t be one of those teams,” Eisner said. “I hope that our guys having four starters back, I hope that we’re able to understand the importance of Friday’s game and bring back the same intensity on Saturday. Or if we don’t play well on Friday, we can have the maturity to bounce back and salvage a split on Saturday. We definitely need to take advantage of our maturity, there’s no doubt about it.”
The Warriors will also be tested for COVID three times per week starting on Friday. If a positive pops up, it will throw a wrench into the season. They’d have to quarantine for two weeks.
“We don’t have the resources like at a Division I program where if we do get shut down for two weeks, how are we going to keep these guys occupied?” Eisner said. “I’ve heard that at some Division I programs, they deliver exercise bikes to their apartments. We don’t have enough bikes to do that. And it’s the winter. If this was fall or summer, you can exercise. When are we going to exercise when we get two inches of snow?”
That’s the cost of doing business in order to play college basketball this season. Winona State isn’t alone in that regard. Every team throughout the country is dealing with the grim reality that one positive test could severely impact a team’s season.
But after not getting to play for so long, the Warriors are more than willing to take on the challenge of playing through a pandemic. They want to compete. They want to play. And they want to show what they can do.
“As we get closer to Friday, you get more and more excited,” Eisner said. “But there’s always that reality that it could get pulled away from you and you can remember those waves of emotions. You have to try to stay even-keeled up to this point. Every day is a new day. Every day that we get to work with our guys is a good day. We have a lot of work to do, and we’re hopeful that we get a chance to get through it.”