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Waiting game wreaks havoc on women’s college basketball nonconference schedules

Gonzaga women’s basketball coach Lisa Fortier usually goes over the preseason schedule with her players at about the same time classes begin each year. She outlines practices, team retreats, days off — everything that is part of the annual routine leading up to the first tip.

This year being what it is, the Bulldogs couldn’t schedule that meeting until midway through September, more than two weeks after classes started. That was when the last player got to Spokane, Washington, an Australian freshman’s arrival slowed by the intricacies of international travel amid a pandemic. It was also when the NCAA assured everyone that there would, in fact, be a college basketball season.

Except that when Fortier and her staff set up the meeting, they realized they still had little to communicate. Sure, they knew games could begin Nov. 25. But without a schedule, and with plenty of unanswered questions about how to put one together, they were stuck.

“We basically canceled the meeting and told them they could go play pickup,” Fortier said. “Because what are we supposed to say right now?”

Just more than six weeks before the season is to tip off, we don’t know all that much more. Here’s a look at what coaches are sorting through while trying to get to Nov. 25.

Where are we as full practice begins?

In announcing that the season could start the day before Thanksgiving, the NCAA Division I Council provided a framework for how the season will proceed. But the Sept. 16 announcement was less like a detailed itinerary and more like a road atlas. Imagine the NCAA telling teams the objective was to get from Los Angeles to New York but also leaving it more or less entirely up to them to pick a route from among the almost-innumerable options.

“It’s just like everything else,” Fortier said. “We thought we were going to know, and then we don’t exactly know.”

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Expanded practice hours began the last week of September. Full practice begins Wednesday. At that point, teams are allowed 30 practices in the 42 days leading up to games beginning on Nov. 25 — two weeks later than originally planned. Women’s teams can schedule as few as 13 games and no more than 25 regular-season games, not including conference tournaments.

A week after setting those schedule details, the NCAA also issued health and safety guidelines. Those included the recommendation that those involved test for COVID-19 three times per week.

The next domino is determining conference schedules, and most leagues have yet to release them. Fortier finally learned hers from the West Coast Conference last week. Teams will play 18 league games, the same as last season but with an additional week built in. The SEC, too, kept the same number of games as its teams played last season, in its case 16 games