PROVO — After spending the past couple of months trying to stay in shape on his own after BYU’s basketball facilities were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, guard Connor Harding and his teammates are grateful to have returned to the Marriott Center Annex this week for voluntary workouts.

“Everyone is excited to be back,” he said. “It’s a privilege to know that we have a court where we can work out, and we can start heading toward our goals and our dreams. The phrase we keep saying is, ‘It’s good to be back.’”

The Cougar men’s and women’s basketball teams, and the football team, have been allowed to return to on-campus facilities for voluntary workouts since Monday. 

But the workouts are under much different circumstances than what Harding has been used to over the years, as the school is exercising an abundance of caution. The athletes are observing strict safety standards and social distancing practices. 

“It’s strange, for sure. We have to keep our distance, we also have to wear a mask,” Harding said. “We have hand sanitizers all around the gym. We have to get our temperature checked. We have to go through a series of questions every single day to see if we have any symptoms and how we are feeling. Before going on the court, and the weight room, we have to spray everything, we let it sit and we wipe it off. There’s a 15-minute break. Everything is cleaned. We put it back. On the court, they clean everything that’s used. We only have a couple of people together at a time so we’re not all by each other.”

Once the players get on the court, they’re allowed to remove their masks. 

“We have our separate hoops. That’s what we’ve decided to do as a team so we can keep coming back and keep getting shots up. For the most part, we’re cognizant of keeping our distance and not touching each other or high-fiving,” Harding said. “We have a certain ball that we use that has our name on it. It’s very strict, but also we have an opportunity to be in the gym. Every time we’re done using anything, we have to clean it up and spray it. We have people monitoring the stuff that we use and how to use it. They help us clean up if we need help. We’re being very, very careful because we’re fortunate enough to be in the gym.”

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Harding’s group meets in the mornings and when his group is done, the women’s team enters the facility. The athletes are limited in where they can go in the Annex. 

“In the training room, we have to wear a mask. Everyone has to be separated,” said Harding, who married women’s basketball player Paisley Johnson in May. “It’s different, for sure. You can’t roam around and do whatever you want. There are eyes watching you. Your teammates are holding you responsible. In the end, it’s good to be back, and we want to stay.”

Coaches aren’t allowed to meet with the players in person, and they can’t be involved in the voluntary workouts. But they have Zoom calls with the players when they leave. 

Guard Alex Barcello returned to Provo from his home in Arizona over the weekend but he hasn’t been able to participate in voluntary workouts yet. 

“Alex is getting tested for COVID-19 because he was living in Arizona,” Harding said. “I haven’t seen him yet, but I know he’s around. It’s whoever shows up at that time is who I see.”

Harding said the players have a group text called “The Boys,” and they set up times when they can to participate in workouts. 

“It’s all voluntary. We’ll decide what shooting drills we want to do or dribbling drills or defensive footwork drills,” Harding said. “We have to come up with things on our own, stuff that we’re going to do during the season. This is what we need to practice. We help each other to strive to be better.”

One of the players who has been working out is 7-foot-3 Purdue transfer Matt Haarms

“Matt works out early in the morning. He’s with Richard (Harward). They’ve been working out lately, battling in the post. It’s fun to watch them,” Harding said. “Matt looks like a solid player, and he’s hard to guard. He’s big. He makes a 6’10” Richard Harward look small. He towers over him. Hunter Erickson, a returned missionary, I’ve seen him in the gym. People are filtering in and out whenever they can.”

Harding is looking forward to the upcoming season. Last year, in coach Mark Pope’s first season, the Cougars posted a 24-8 record and finished No. 18 in the final polls. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, BYU was denied a chance to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. 

“We had a great opportunity to go to the Big Dance. Unfortunately, the pandemic happened. You just can’t take things for granted,” Harding said. “We were able to play in the West Coast Conference Tournament, and we didn’t play our best game. The season ended just like that. We thought we would be playing more. You can’t take games or practices or the facilities we have for granted. That’s the attitude we have. Also, we know what we have to do to get to where we were last year — and hopefully better. There are a lot of hard practices, a lot of blood, sweat and tears into where we wanted to get. A lot of time on the court. Hopefully, we buy into that as a team again. Hopefully, we can build our chemistry and make a run again. Those are the two biggest things for us. Right now, that’s the feel in the gym. We’re seeing how everyone is doing. It’s going to get really competitive in practice when they allow it.”