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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

Virus touches college football, from upending schedules to making coaches ill

If coach Dana Holgorsen seemed relieved after his University of Houston football team finally played a game Thursday night, no one can blame him. Five times the Cougars had season-opening opponents either cancel or postpone games because of the coronavirus pandemic.

When finally allowed on the field, the Cougars overcame five turnovers to outlast Tulane 49-31.

“We won, so that’s good, but there’s a lot of things we’ve got to get better at,” Holgorsen told reporters.

Houston’s story is only one of several to play out this season as colleges return to campus and try to find a way to coexist with COVID-19. Through Thursday, 26 FBS games had been postponed or canceled since the season began. That’s in addition to the upheaval of conferences retooling their schedules for later starts and shorter seasons.

The Gophers are scheduled to open a nine-game Big Ten season on Oct. 24 against Michigan.

In Houston’s case, the season was supposed to start Sept. 3 vs. Rice, but the Owls dropped out because of COVID-19. The next game, vs. Washington State, was eliminated when the Pac-12 originally canceled its season. The next game, vs. Memphis, was postponed, and the Cougars scrambled to fill that date with Baylor, until the Bears canceled 48 hours before kickoff. North Texas became the fifth program to beg out, canceling the Sept. 26 game.

“You can’t compare this to anything. … This is on a whole ’nother level,” Holgorsen said earlier this week. “The one thing that has given us hope is we sit here and watch other teams playing.”

Familiar names impacted

When Notre Dame and Florida State meet Saturday night in South Bend, Ind., on display will be two teams whose seasons have been impacted greatly by COVID-19.

The fifth-ranked Fighting Irish return after their Sept. 26 game against Wake Forest was postponed because of an outbreak. Notre Dame had 39 players in isolation or quarantine after 18 players tested positive.

Coach Brian Kelly pointed to a pregame meal before the season opener against South Florida as the culprit.

“We had somebody who was asymptomatic, and it spread like wildfire throughout our meeting area where we were eating,” Kelly told ESPN.

Meanwhile, Seminoles coach Mike Norvell tested positive for COVID-19 and couldn’t coach in the 52-10 loss at Miami on Sept. 26. “You learn from every experience,” Norvell told reporters. “We need to make sure we get things corrected and respond at a much higher level.”

BYU managing well

In the days before COVID-19, Brigham Young had an ambitious schedule for 2020. The Cougars, an independent team, had lined up two games against Big Ten teams — including a Sept. 26 road contest against the Gophers — three against Pac-12 foes and one against an SEC squad. That all changed in August, when conferences began postponing the season and BYU hustled to fashion a new schedule.

The results so far have been good. Ranked No. 15 in both major national polls, the Cougars have steamrolled Navy (55-3),

With college basketball schedules resetting, Gonzaga and Baylor set brutal slates — and that’s a great thing

Gonzaga is No. 1 in the CBS Sports Top 25 And 1. And Baylor is No. 2. It’s an uncommon couple atop the polls heading into an uncommon — well, unprecedented — season. 

But do you realize what these programs are doing? To this point, here’s what the nonconference schedules are looking like for the two Final Four contenders. 

For Gonzaga:

  • vs. No. 11 Michigan State (potentially) in Orlando in late November
  • vs. No. 12 Tennessee in Orlando on Dec. 2
  • vs. No. 2 Baylor in Indianapolis on Dec. 5
  • vs. No. 5 Iowa in South Dakota on Dec. 19

For Baylor:

Keep in mind there will be more games against NCAA Tournament-level teams for both schools when they squeeze in additional tilts in Orlando, where ESPN is going to house dozens of teams and numerous multi-team events. Mark Few and Scott Drew, two coaches who’ve never won a national title and only one of whom has made a Final Four, are scheduling like degree of difficulty will get them to the promised land. 

I love it. Can you imagine if college basketball always had this? By that I mean: regularly had two of its top three or four teams not only explicitly seeking each other out to play in the nonconference, but also were borderline obsessed with playing the hardest out-of-league slate possible? It’s what the 2020-21 season has delivered with the Bulldogs and Bears.

These two aren’t the only top 10-caliber teams seeking difficult schedules, I know. Expect Kansas to be very rugged again, for instance. No. 4 Virginia is targeting to play Florida, and should also have No. 3 Villanova on the schedule. No. 5 Iowa told Gonzaga it’s totally up for a throwdown in South Dakota. It’s a fabulous thing for college basketball. If all teams in the top five or 10 were as aspirational as Gonzaga and Baylor are this year, college basketball would never again have to worry about its November and December relevance. 

If we can start the season on Nov. 25 and be fortunate enough to have minimal postponements or cancellations, thanks to hundreds of games being played in controlled environments, the first two weeks will be adorned with top-25 matchups practically daily. On top of that, we’ll have Gonzaga and Baylor, battling for the top of the polls, loading up and leaning into it all. It would be easy, if not understandable, to see Few and Drew seek to lay out a bit, merely schedule acceptably, and then head into league play and look to dominate and use that as an avenue to a top seed. Instead, each coach is scheduling ranked teams like this will be the last season they’ll ever get to face them. 

Let’s peel back another layer. It’s also a smart strategy because of the anticipated fragile nature of college basketball’s season. Schools that play in a multi-team event can have a maximum of 27 games. I’ve yet to speak to one coach who thinks any team