Dan Burt: “This is our second season”

Courtesy of Duquesne Athletics

Adam Lindner | Sports Editor

Feb. 11, 2021

Today marks the 25th day in a row since the Duquesne women’s basketball team last saw the court. No matter which way you slice it — 600 hours, 36,000 minutes, almost four weeks — a 25-day mid-season pause is a long time away from action for any team.

Heck, the last time the Dukes played, classes hadn’t even resumed yet. Duquesne students now find themselves wrapping up their third full week of coursework.

Feb. 12’s matchup at George Washington, set for 5 p.m., will be the Dukes’ first contest since their Jan. 17 loss against La Salle. It will also serve as an opportunity for the team to secure its first victory since Dec. 11, when it topped St. Bonaventure for its only conference victory to date.

That was a whopping 62 days — or, within the context of a college basketball season, approximately two moons — ago.

Currently sitting at 2-7 overall with a 1-4 mark in the Atlantic 10, Duquesne is mired in one of its worst seasons in recent memory, albeit a decidedly challenging and unusual one. Aside from COVID-19-related pauses, postponements and cancellations, the Dukes have also dealt with a rash of injuries to key players, including all-league guard Libby Bazelak (played 11 minutes in her first game of the season Jan. 17 after missing the first eight with an injury) and guard Amanda Kalin, who was enjoying a standout year before she suffered a season-ending injury at Dayton Jan. 3.

Sitting near the bottom of the A-10’s standings with roughly one month remaining in the regular season, it would be fair to posit that the Dukes have their work cut out for them if they’re to salvage their campaign.

Never mind that.

In Head Coach Dan Burt’s mind, its first season is done. Season No. 2, Burt says, begins Friday in the nation’s capital.

Approximately three weeks from now, Burt hopes the team’s third season will be beginning — at the A-10 tournament in Richmond, Va., that is.

Following the team’s first (nearly) full practice in weeks on Wednesday, Burt took the time to speak with The Duke over the phone. Burt spoke about the team’s elongated pause, its day-to-day goals and Bazelak’s return to full health in the conversation transcribed below.

Please note that portions of The Duke’s conversation with Burt have been edited for brevity.

The Duke: Personally speaking, how have you been dealing with the pandemic?

Burt: You know, it’s exhausting. I’m blessed — my family and I have not had any COVID positives, whether it’s my wife’s family or my family, my children, my wife or I. We’ve all been very blessed to be healthy. … I think we’ll be wearing masks this time next year, but hopefully we’ll have most of America vaccinated by the end of summer and we’ll be able to get on with our lives a little bit more normally. … I know I just want to travel. I want to go on vacation (laughs). I know that I miss live music and going to see bands. Heck, I miss going to practice. I can’t go watch our men’s team practice. But I understand why.

The Duke: You guys are set for the GW game on Friday, correct?

Burt: We are going to play against George Washington. Today is the first day that we’ve practiced with most of our team — we’re missing two starters today, but otherwise we had most of our team at practice today for the first time in about a month.

The Duke: What can you say about your team’s conditioning level after such a lengthy pause?

Burt: It’s a situation where you are not going to be in shape and your level of conditioning is going to be varied amongst your players, because some of them have been in isolation or quarantine longer than others. Some of that has been significant. Then, there’s the role that genetics plays in getting back into shape. We are constantly evaluating them individually through practice to see where they are and communicating with them, because we want to ramp [conditioning efforts] up slowly to avoid soft-tissue injuries. … Today, we managed to scrimmage full-court for about five minutes, and we have to play on Friday. When we play, you’re probably looking at a situation where you’re going to ask your better-conditioned players to play three or four — maybe five minutes — at a time, and the majority of players are going to see two to three minutes at a time. If they’re playing as hard as we need them to play, they cannot play more than two or three minutes at a time. It’s almost lent itself to a platoon system for this weekend (Duquesne plays Feb. 12 at GW, then Feb. 14 at George Mason). We’ll evaluate that after the weekend. … Instead of being able to plan things out a month in advance, a week in advance or a day in advance, I literally wake up and go, ‘OK, until 1 o’clock, what’s going to happen? From 1 o’clock to 8 o’clock at night, what else is going to be thrown our way?’ That’s the way we’ve managed. It’s very different, because college coaches are used to having structure and routine, and this season is anything but routine and structure.

The Duke: What has your team been able to accomplish, if anything, during this pause? What types of things have you been able to do?

Burt: It’s a situation where it’s small-group workouts based on, ‘Are people healthy? Are they testing negative? Have they tested positive in the past, and now they’re through it?’ There’s so many different protocols that we have to go through for all the different characteristics that COVID presents itself with. … It’s very — I don’t want to say unnerving — but it’s very different to huddle up in mid-January, or even in February, and you have three players. It’s very different to practice two days before you play a game and see that you have 11 players today that will be having their first practice together as a team in weeks. It’s going to be very challenging, but that’s not just a Duquesne thing. George Washington is coming off of a pause tomorrow, so I have no idea how they’ve been practicing. Who knows who’s available to them from a player standpoint? You almost can’t do much from a scouting perspective — you look at George Washington and you don’t know who’s available. They haven’t played since Feb. 1. You have to go with what they’ve done in the past, but your greater focus has to be on yourself and your players. How can we run and execute what we do at the highest level that we can in the condition that we’re in? … We are 0-0. This is our second season, and that’s how we are approaching it. It will be anywhere between five and seven games, and then we hope that we are playing on March 7 in the conference championship [game]. That is our goal. We have 28 days from today until March 7, and our focus is on Friday. It is understanding that we’ve got probably about six games between now and the end of the regular season, and then after that, it’s a third season with the conference tournament.

Editor’s Note: There are 25 days between Feb. 10 and March 7.

The Duke: I would imagine that playing a simpler style of game will be imperative given your team’s current situation.

Burt: Very good observation. A simpler style [for us] will be playing a little bit more in transition, playing with very few set rules [in the open court] and allowing the kids to have a great amount of freedom. That’s what our goal is. … There’s about six sets that [our players] know and can do them in their sleep. We want to make sure we’ve got those six or seven sets — really, there are probably three or four [sets] that we know can get us a good shot any time we want. We want to know that we can run those and rehearse those as we prepare for Friday. … The simpler that you can make things, the better it is for the kids. We’re dealing with very high-achieving individuals that have had, I believe, 10 games canceled — some not because of their own COVID positives, but because of others’. It’s just been unfortunate that others have had to cancel games with us. That’s a very tough thing from a mental health standpoint, when you’ve been jerked around and you have games canceled three hours before you’re supposed to play. You fly to Saint Louis and you’re supposed to play in two days — and you’re in St. Louis — and the game gets canceled. I tell people, ‘We are not going off to war. We are not dodging bullets.’ But it is a very taxing mental health situation because you have such high-achieving individuals. We have tried to remain happy and hopeful and celebrate all the little victories; little victories are when we all test negative. We celebrate that. I imagine I’m going to call a timeout on Friday if we go on a short run and say, ‘Hey, doesn’t that feel good? We just hit back-to-back threes. Man, let’s celebrate that for 30 seconds!’ We have to do that. We can’t do those things off the court now; we can’t build camaraderie because we can’t be around one another off the floor. You usually build camaraderie when you have meals together as a team. Right now, it’s, ‘Here’s your box of food, go to your room.’ To build a team is very difficult in this day and age.

Editor’s Note: AP Style calls for an abbreviation when referencing the city of St. Louis, but the spelling of Saint Louis University is never abridged.

The Duke: Libby Bazelak returned to play in one game (Jan. 17 versus La Salle) before the program was paused. Is she healthy and expected to contribute on Friday?

Burt: You will see Libby Bazelak be at a different level on Friday than you saw against La Salle. She’s not 100%, but she’s much further along than where she was when we put her in the game against La Salle.

The Duke: How nice will it be — no matter the outcome — to play again this weekend?

Burt: It will feel unbelievable to all of us. We’ve had games canceled the day of — a couple hours before — and I really believe our staff and players won’t believe that the game is actually happening until we come out for the opening tip. It’s the nature of this year, where we’ve been disappointed so much with COVID cancellations late on game days, that until we tip it up, [the prospect of the game being called off] will be in our minds. And I don’t think that there’s anything that a coach can do about that, because frankly, the coaches feel the same way. … [The frustration] is not insurmountable, but it is not fun.