ST. THOMAS — Alfonzo Duncan was out of bed early Friday morning, just like he’s done nearly every morning since taking over as head coach of the University of the Virgin Islands’ men’s basketball team nearly a year ago.
But this Friday was special for Duncan, as well as new UVI women’s basketball coach Lynika “Niki” Collins.
It marked the Buccaneers’ first official practice of the 2021-2022 season — and both programs’ first time back on a basketball court since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic nearly 19 months ago.
“I’m more excited about the fact that I get to teach them,” said Collins.
In that span, both UVI teams have undergone coaching changes and major roster changes, not to mention sitting out a full season due to the pandemic and the travel restrictions that came with it.
And with 28 days until the Buccaneers’ first games — both the men’s and women’s teams open their seasons Oct. 29 against Morris College in Sumter, S.C. — there’s still a lot of work to be done.
“It’s a lot of hard work trying to teach,” said Duncan, who was named UVI’s men’s coach in early November 2020, chosen from 65 applicants as the replacement for Jeff Jones.
“When you look at these guys, a lot of them really don’t understand how to play, and never really run an offense and never really had to play defense. There’s a lot of teaching that’s involved, but we’re going to get it done.”
When he first stepped foot on the university’s campus a month later, Duncan discovered that he had a major task before him — putting together an entire team.
“We’re so young — I had to recruit everybody,” Duncan said. “We didn’t have a choice, we didn’t have a team — nobody was eligible. We didn’t have any players, and it wasn’t like we could just go get anyone to play.
“I’ve never been in a place where I had to recruit an entire team, and I did it all myself.”
He caught a break when UVI — like a number of NCAA and NAIA schools did during the pandemic — canceled its 2020-2021 athletics programs.
The time off gave Duncan the chance to do some real recruiting, and find the players that he felt could fit in with what he wanted to accomplish with the Buccaneers.
“It’s harder than people realize,” recruiting players to UVI, Duncan said. “The number of scholarships available versus the schools stateside … and sometimes you deal with parents who don’t want to separate from their kids.
“It’s a challenge getting kids here, and getting them acclimated to being in a completely different environment. Once they get here, there’s a short window as to whether they’re going to stay or leave. But these guys are acclimating well.”
Collins — hired in July as the Buccaneers’ women’s coach, replacing Jackson Dolor — had an even tougher task: Not only did she have to assemble a team, she had less than a month to do so before the start of classes.
“When I was hired, I had a roster with maybe eight young ladies,” said Collins, who was head coach at Southern University at New Orleans for two seasons before coming to UVI. “I could have worked with that. But when I started calling them, most of them weren’t going to come back because they didn’t want to be vaccinated.
“That was a hard hit, especially in mid-July and school was going to be starting in about a month. I needed a team. I only had one young lady [Kaya Evans] who had agreed to come back.”
So Collins began working the phones, and wound up landing eight signees — four transfers from other colleges, and four freshmen out of high school programs.
Like with Duncan and UVI’s men’s program, Collins’ next task is to get her new lineup playing as a team.
“I’m not looking for a perfect start,” Collins said. “Our first game is on the 29th, so I’m not looking for them to go out and do everything. But what I am looking for is growth. When we come back for the [UVI HBCU Classic on Nov. 3-5], I think you’ll see a more prepared team.
“The clock is ticking. I’m not panicking, but I do know the skill set I have in these young ladies before I put it together. I’m excited to see what they’re going to do on the court together.”