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 over 18 possible dates. Other leagues, such as the Pac-12, are still contemplating what to do with their conference schedules — namely, whether to increase the number of games, allowing for a uniformity of testing protocols across conference members and perhaps even coordination of schedules and travel between men’s and women’s programs.

In normal circumstances, teams often release their nonconference schedules before their conference schedules because the conference portion is a known quantity — it’s just a matter of filling in opponents. This season, not much else can happen until those are locked in place.

What does this mean for nonconference games?

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said the Gamecocks plan to participate in an unspecified multiteam event at a neutral site in which the event organizers will cover the cost of COVID-19 testing. David Allio/Icon Sportswire

This is where things get interesting — if by interesting, you mean chaotic.

For context, South Carolina played 14 nonconference games last season, running the gamut from Baylor and UConn to Alabama State and Appalachian State. Even with the SEC’s recent decision to retain a 16-game conference schedule in women’s basketball, rather than bump it up to 18 games as Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley thought possible, she can schedule only nine nonconference games this season if she doesn’t play in a multiple-team event, or seven in addition to such an event.

Before even getting to all of the other complicating factors, that means coaches are working with math that no longer works — too many games already scheduled for too few available slots.

“What you have to do now,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said, “is you have to see how many nonconference games that you need to move, how many you need to eliminate.”

In some cases, it might not be a matter of choice.

Baylor is supposed to play Oregon in Las Vegas in December, one of the marquee games of the early season between programs loaded with top recruits. A December date still fits the new NCAA schedule model, but the game remains up in the air. The Pac-12 reversed its earlier decision not to play any games before Jan. 1 but still hasn’t announced a format for the league schedule.

Many of the biggest nonconference games of 2020-21 are up in the air, including a Las Vegas date in December between Kelly Graves’ Oregon Ducks and Kim Mulkey’s Baylor Lady Bears. Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Oregon coach Kelly Graves is among those advocating for a 22-game conference format, with each team playing every other school both home and away. That would be four more conference games than last season’s model. It would also all but eliminate the nonconference portion of the schedule. In that eventuality, Graves said Portland, Portland State and Seattle would make sense as opponents. All three were on Oregon’s schedule as it existed before the pandemic put planning for the 2020-21 season on hold.

“Our game with Baylor in Vegas, I think that’s up in the air,” Graves said.

The Gamecocks were supposed to play Maryland before Thanksgiving and UConn after the turn of the year. Now the Maryland game falls before the official start date and the UConn game could be in peril if the Big East, as expected, expands conference play.

“We want to maximize the people we play,” Staley said. “We want the UConn game. We want the Maryland game. We want the multiteam event because right now, they’ve got some quality teams. We want to control our own destiny when it comes to [schedule strength], as much as we can, because COVID is unpredictable and fluid.”

UConn coach Geno Auriemma said last week that while he felt the Big East increasing conference games from 18 a season ago (without the Huskies) to 20 games this season was a done deal, the South Carolina game is still on. So are marquee games against Baylor, Notre Dame and Tennessee — although he also said those opponents hadn’t reconfirmed the dates, only that there were existing contracts for those games and UConn hadn’t heard anything from those opponents to suggest a change in plans.

“We’ve been able to hold on to those games,” Auriemma said. “And then we’ll get the results pretty soon of what day we’re playing, what time and where. Those things we don’t know yet.”

But until all conference schedules are set, it’s difficult to say anything is written in stone. And as Indiana coach Teri Moren said last week, the uncertainty makes it difficult for the next tier of challengers to know even how best to approach scheduling philosophically. It might be better to schedule likely wins to enhance a postseason résumé that might be compared with a team that plays as few as 13 games, rendering some analytical comparative tools less effective.

“I think we’re just eager to get a schedule put together on paper, where we know who we’re playing, we know when we’re playing,” Moren said. “But we will have to … be light on our feet, be nimble, be flexible and be ready to make some different kinds of decisions as far as when we’re going to play and based on teams and protocols and all of that.”

What about bubbles?

The WNBA was among the leagues to play in a bubble this season, with strict testing protocols and no positive COVID-19 tests during the season. Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

As with seemingly every sport that has returned to play since March, limited-access environments will be a part of the college basketball landscape. Bubbles have been highly effective for the NBA and WNBA, but the scale and scope of college basketball bubbles or bubble-type environments remains unclear. Even those involved are still trying to sort it out.

“I don’t even comprehend how a bubble would work,” Mulkey said. “Not that I have an opinion if it would or wouldn’t, I’m just not smart enough to figure out how that would work.”

Mulkey is far from the only head coach uncertain about how widespread bubble scenarios would be or whether they would be able to participate. First-year Duke coach Kara Lawson is unique among her peers in that she was part of a successful bubble as an assistant with the Boston Celtics. She expressed similar uncertainty about how bubbles — at least as she knew them — would be feasible on the scale necessary in college basketball and given academic demands, perhaps outside a postseason setting.

But as with Graves, Staley said her team plans to participate in an unspecified multiteam event at a neutral site in which the event organizers will cover the cost of testing. It would not be the long-term or airtight bubble familiar from the National Women’s Soccer League, WNBA and other professional leagues. It would be a self-contained environment that would minimize travel and exposure while allowing for multiple games (with South Carolina likely staying on for an additional game in the area).

“That’s most important to us, to just get some games in where we’re not putting our student-athletes at risk.” Staley said. “The multiteam event has testing for everyone, so that’s really appealing. Obviously we’ve got to get there. But it’s going to be mandated that we test, and we could be testing as much as three times a week. And if someone can cover that for us, I think that’s a great thing. That would help us out a great deal.”

Before learning her conference schedule, Fortier was already planning for bubbles, or at least quasi-bubbles, to be a core component of her nonconference scheduling. In conjunction with the Big Sky, Big West, Mountain West and WAC, the WCC is expected to participate in a bubble-type scenario in Las Vegas for both men’s and women’s basketball. Again, the end result might not duplicate the airtight environments of pro leagues this summer. But it would centralize testing and cut down on travel for those involved.

Jenn Wirth and Gonzaga went 28-3 last season and are expected to be highly ranked. But nonconference games that would typically improve their profile and visibility could be hard to come by this season. Robert Johnson/Icon Sportswire

Even for Gonzaga, which has traveled by private plane since Graves was head coach, and where Fortier said the athletic department has thus far been spared from the draconian cost-cutting measures already seen at other schools, a traditional schedule isn’t viable. The Bulldogs aren’t going to fly to Laramie, Wyoming, for a midweek game, as they did last December.

“For us, with testing and travel, that’s not a viable option for us,” Fortier said of the old model. “We’re not going to play a bunch of single games. I think more people are going to lean toward let’s find multiple games in one spot. I know a lot of people are interested in that.”

Fortier also suggested WCC coaches had at least talked about the idea of bubbles within conference play, although that wasn’t part of the league’s schedule announcement. And unless conferences across the board employ something along those lines, and there are no reports to suggest that is imminent, the more consequential bubbles this season might be those described by UCLA coach Cori Close, also a member of the Division I Women’s Basketball Oversight Committee.

“I think we’re all trying to think like a bubble on our institutional campuses, with as much as it can be with what is under our control,” Close said. “I know we are, in terms of how we’re doing housing, how we’re doing food. Every aspect is trying to mitigate risk. One of the best ways to mitigate risk is to make it as bubble-ish as possible.”

Part of the reason the NCAA moved the start of games to Nov. 25 was because so many campuses will be largely empty at that time — the NCAA estimating 76% of schools will either have shifted to online-only instruction and exams or be out of term through December.

But while bubbles might be the answer for nonconference events and the postseason, the real challenge of a season that stretches for around four months is going to come on campuses.

“As we get closer to Nov. 25, we can’t survive a spike,” Close said. “In a sport like basketball, it’s not like football where you can segment a group of guys off. If one person in our, as they call it, Tier 1, which is your most immediate subculture and little bubble, if one person gets it, you’re pretty much isolated as a group for 14 days. There’s really not much margin for error.”

What does all of this mean for mid-majors?

It’s going to be more difficult than ever for mid-major teams to build NCAA tournament résumés.

Before the tourney was canceled in March, IUPUI was headed to play the program’s first NCAA tournament game. The Horizon League champs built toward that success with results like a competitive loss at Miami in November and a victory against St. John’s at a Thanksgiving tournament in Las Vegas.

But looking at the state of the world in late spring and early summer, IUPUI coach Austin Parkinson pulled the plug early on plans to go to another holiday tournament this season. With so many potential opponents within reasonable driving distance of Indianapolis, the Jaguars will have a decidedly pandemic-influenced schedule ahead of Horizon League competition.

“We’re not going to schedule a game right now where we got to hop on a plane, nonconference-wise, and fly to a certain location,” Parkinson said. “That won’t make sense for us both budget-wise and safety-wise. We’ve tried to be smart. … We’re not going to be able to spend an inordinate amount of money to travel to certain places, specifically this season.”

IUPUI beat Green Bay in the Horizon League tournament final last March to earn its first trip to the NCAA tournament. But the event was canceled and a 23-8 season was cut short. Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire

A more regional look to scheduling might mean that a few mid-majors actually add games with the potential to help their NET, which this season replaces RPI in NCAA deliberations. Instead of the holiday tournament, perhaps IUPUI plays Indiana or Purdue. But those games would likely be true road games, rather than neutral-court games. And for programs such as Gonzaga or South Dakota State with limited regional options, building a nonconference résumé will be all the more difficult. Gonzaga was supposed to play multiple Pac-12 teams. Now those games are up in the air.

“Just like always, we want to have success and confidence but also be tested and play tough teams,” Fortier said. “We just don’t have as many games to schedule, so we’re trying to figure out how we can play the best teams we can build confidence against — whether that be in a win or playing tight against a really top-caliber team.”

Unlike a Baylor or South Carolina, IUPUI is a program that is on the receiving end of guarantee games. The Jaguars don’t play many of them — the close call at Miami evidence of why big schools would be hesitant to schedule a potential loss — but they play one or two and had some on the schedule again this season. But Parkinson said recently he didn’t expect they would stay there. At a school that doesn’t sponsor football, the cash cow of college sports, that’s a blow to the bottom line, even if he sought a silver lining in other pandemic side effects.

“Any time you’re losing that money that you had expected, it’s not ideal,” Parkinson said. “That being said, I think our department has done a good job of trying to budget with everything that is taking place. You’ve probably saved quite a bit of money in recruiting. If you think about the summer travel we would have normally taken going to watch games all over the place, that’s all been online. That’s an area we’ve been able to save.”

Where does the sport go from here?

While much of the focus is on the admittedly myriad short-term issues involved with getting games started by Thanksgiving, the next round of questions will be about the pandemic’s lasting impact on college sports and women’s basketball.

“I think this will be a quick recovery because people want to see women’s college basketball,” Staley said. “We’re in a place where a lot of people are interested, a lot of fans are interested, a lot of fans like the banter. They’re in it. I just hope the decision-makers are not filling the space women’s college basketball has with other things.”

But even Staley hedged her optimism when she acknowledged she was concerned about matters like the schools on her schedule that count on guarantee payments to help fund budgets. Without naming the opponent, she hoped to keep at least one of those games with particular significance on the schedule. Still, if it came down to a choice between uncertainty with that game or the certainty of participating in something like a multiteam event, Staley said she would have to take the certainty of an event with multiple games and its testing protocol.

Every program is affected by the pandemic; every budget is tightening. But from the potential existential peril of those programs closest to the fringes, those that might struggle to afford testing and travel even if games are available, to the middle tier necessary for the continued growth of parity, the pandemic offers little hope for quick progress.

“I think we’re going to be feeling the effects of this for several years,” Close said. “It’s really hard. It’s not going to be equitable; it’s going to affect people differently.

“It’s sort of a reflection of businesses in our country. I think it’s going to be really important for us, especially in women’s basketball, to not just think about ourselves and not just think about our own competitive advantages, as competitive as we all are. We need to think about how to get us all back into a healthy place and how do we think about the good of the game.”

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