Week 6 with the Pac-12: COVID-19 Cancellations and the NCAA Tournament
Could some teams miss the NCAA Tournament simply because they didn't play enough games?
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What effect will the pandemic have on NCAA Tournament eligibility?
The pandemic has forced the NCAA to look at standard procedures, including around how teams qualify for the tournament. Last season, Division I women’s basketball teams had to play at least 13 games to qualify. This season, that number has returned to the standard 25. That could become a problem for a few Pac-12 teams who had games canceled during nonconference play.
Last season, cancellations were not as much of a concern. Since almost all of the games were within the conference, anyone who needed those games to qualify for the tournament had a better chance of being able to reschedule. The fact that the Pac-12 went to 22 games enhanced the ability to get a sufficient number of games played at some point.
This season, the league returned to an 18-game conference season for the women and did not build in any allowances for rescheduling contests. Initially, the Pac-12 was also taking a rather punitive stance on cancellations. Any conference game that had to be canceled could be recorded as a forfeit by the team dealing with virus-related pauses unless both teams agreed to reschedule.
With the number of shutdowns across the country in both men’s and women’s basketball, several conferences are backing away from the forfeiture rule. The Big Ten, the Big XII, and the ACC have all done so. The Pac-12 joined them on Wednesday, issuing a press release stating that the league was returning to many of the same rules enacted last season.
First among those rules is that games can be postponed or canceled if a team does not have at least seven scholarship players and one coach available.
“Otherwise, upon review and approval by the Commissioner, the game may be rescheduled at a mutually agreeable date or declared a no contest,” the Pac-12’s press release states.
If the game cannot be rescheduled, the commissioner can declare a no contest. The difference this year is that the commissioner can still declare a forfeit “in the event league standards of sportsmanship are not met in the process of attempting to reschedule a contest.” That leaves a great deal of leeway for the league office to determine which cancellations will turn into forfeits.
Some teams were already choosing to pursue rescheduling rather than forcing their opponents to forfeit. On the men’s side, Arizona chose to reschedule a game against Washington that had to be postponed due to protocols within the Huskies’ program. On the other hand, UCLA chose not to reschedule with the Huskies, and their game was declared a forfeit. That forfeit has been rescinded under the new Pac-12 policy.
The problem with simply calling a game a forfeit is that while those games count for the purpose of the Pac-12 standings, such “wins” do not count towards the minimum number of games needed for NCAA Tournament inclusion. This is a problem that some of the Pac-12 women’s teams are already up against, although there may be relief in the near future.
The Pac-12 office relayed the NCAA’s position on cancellations as of Dec. 20. The national organization stated, “Keep in mind that the committee is continuing to monitor and could request a lowering of the minimum number similar to last year based on the number of COVID cancellations, but as of today that number for championship participation is still 25.”
The Wildcats lost two games to pandemic-related cancellations in the nonconference season. Their first lost game came when UC Riverside had to cancel due to virus-related concerns within their program.
Initially, Arizona head coach Adia Barnes thought about trying to schedule another game. Eventually, she rejected the idea because she didn’t think it would be feasible. She may now have to reconsider that position due to problems within her own program.
The Wildcats lost not only a chance to get one step closer to the threshold for the tournament, but they also missed out on a nationally-televised game against Texas last week. Arizona had traveled to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 Coast-to-Coast Challenge when the team ran into issues with COVID-19 and contact tracing. The game was canceled late Saturday, although San Diego stepped in to play Texas.
Arizona scheduled 12 out-of-conference games, which is one more than the Wildcats usually play. With two of those games already canceled, the Wildcats must play at least 15 games during the league’s regular season and tournament to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. They’re currently scheduled to be at 28 games before the conference tournament starts if no other games are canceled.
Future cancellations could be a problem in a league that saw Stanford forced onto the road for the entire season when Santa Clara County put into place some of the strictest pandemic rules in the country last year. With so many Pac-12 teams located in the state of California, restrictions that interfere with the games are a possibility.
Arizona is not the only Pac-12 team that will be cutting things close. UCLA has already had three games canceled due to problems within their own program. Along with their men, the women’s team has been having issues for the past week. Head coach Cori Close’s team called off their final three nonconference games against Texas Southern, Ohio State, and CSU Bakersfield.
The Bruins will head into league competition having played just eight games. They must play at least 17 games over the course of the Pac-12 regular season and tournament to hit the NCAA’s mark.
They were scheduled to tip off conference play against USC on Dec. 28, but the two programs have already made changes to their schedules due to the shutdown at UCLA. The Bruins and the Women of Troy will now play on Thursday, Jan. 20 in Pauley Pavilion, then they will meet at the Galen Center on Sunday, Jan. 23. That gives UCLA three extra days to prepare for conference play.
With the new schedule in place, the Bruins are now scheduled to host Arizona State on Dec. 31 and Arizona on Jan. 2 to open Pac-12 play. That puts the screws on the team to be ready and makes it equally important that the Wildcats are ready to go when New Year’s weekend rolls around.
USC and Oregon
The Women of Troy and the Ducks are in the same position as Arizona. They, too, have played 10 games, although the only cancellations on their schedules come from opponents being forced to cancel games.
For these teams, the issue has a lot to do with not scheduling enough nonconference games. Had they built some extra leeway into their schedule, the cancellation of the final game on their nonconference slate would not be as significant for either team. Even just one more game would have helped.
Now, both must hope to complete at least 15 games in Pac-12 play while playing in states that have had some of the strictest pandemic policies in the nation. USC also must hope that Arizona is able to emerge from quarantine before their Dec. 31 game in Galen Center or another date will be in jeopardy.
Washington and Washington State
The Huskies have an even more extreme problem than either the Women of Troy or the Ducks. Washington has no cancellations on its schedule but has finished the nonconference season with only eight games played. They must hope to play 17 games during the conference season and tournament to even be considered for an NCAA Tournament berth.
While it is questionable whether the 5-3 Huskies are on track to get to the tournament this season, having so much ride on whether 17 of 18 conference games get played could easily lead to heartbreak. Washington could be facing the possibility of not qualifying, even if they run off some great wins in conference play.
Their in-state rivals are in a much more secure position simply because of scheduling. Washington State scheduled 12 nonconference games this season. Although their game against Cornell was canceled on Sunday, the Cougars have still played more games than most of their Pac-12 opponents. Under the circumstances, it was a wise move by head coach Kamie Ethridge.
Voting for the Best
Player of the Week
My vote: Haley Jones, Stanford
The winner: Haley Jones, Stanford
It’s pretty amazing that this is only the second Pac-12 Player of the Week award in Haley Jones’ career. Despite the former McDonald’s All-Americans up and down the Stanford roster, the Cardinal would be in a world of hurt without Jones.
Jones took the award this week on the back of a big road win over Tennessee. It was by far the most difficult game of last week for any member of the conference. With the Volunteers putting together a furious comeback, the Cardinal would not have emerged victorious without their junior guard.
For the week, Jones averaged a double-double with 13.0 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 4.0 apg, and 1.0 bpg. The numbers weren’t huge, but they were impressive given the circumstances.
Freshman of the Week
This week’s Freshman of the Week voting exposed some of the problems with the voting process. In order to be eligible for the award, a player must be nominated by her school. The nominations are entered by the sports information directors of each school, but each SID has wildly different criteria for nominating someone.
This week, members of the panel were given the option to vote for a freshman on the basis of a game where she scored 0 points on 0-for-5 shooting and had two rebounds, five assists, and three steals in 25 minutes. There was not an option to vote for a freshman from another team who scored 17 points on 7-for-10 shooting, grabbed three rebounds, and stole the ball twice in 25 minutes.
The problem isn’t with the SID who put in the first player. The concern is for the player who was not entered for consideration. In all likelihood, it doesn’t change the vote for the award this week, but it is an indication of how these awards can be skewed when it comes to a player’s value to her team.
In the end, my vote went for Greta Kampschroeder over Jayda Curry because Kampschroeder played in two games on neutral courts. One of those games was against Northern Iowa, which is No. 45 in our ranking system and No. 44 in the NET. Curry played one game against a Cal Poly team that is No. 296 in the NET and No. 238 in our rankings. The Beaver guard played more games against better competition. That gets my vote every time.