It was only eight months ago that the sports world — including women’s college basketball — was shut down by the coronavirus pandemic. The Big Ten tournament had just ended. The conference was poised to send as many as eight teams to the NCAA tournament.
In less than two weeks the games are slated to resume, though a schedule has yet to be released. There will a vastly abbreviated nonconference slate for each team, followed by a dive into conference play. Games will be played without fans, at least at first. There will be issues surrounding travel.
In a preseason conference call with Big Ten coaches Friday, a few things became clear:
• Everyone wants to play.
• Extensive precautions are being taken.
• Nobody knows, exactly, how this season will play out.
“One way or another, the calendar will keep flipping,” Gophers coach Lindsay Whalen said. “We’ll get to March. I hope we’re playing.”
Whalen knows well the danger of the virus on a program. Her team — along with the Gophers men — have had their preseason preparation affected. Positive test results forced the women to pause activities late last week. It wasn’t until Thursday — after a number of consecutive days without further positives — that the team returned to practice.
On Friday, coaches around the league expressed hope that the season can be pulled off, acknowledging the only way to approach it is one day at a time.
“It’s a question we all face every day,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “We all have to make tremendous sacrifices, but our players want to play. We’re doing the best we can.”
Said Iowa coach Lisa Bluder: “It’s different coming in every day and getting tested, coming in wearing masks. The kids are not having a normal college experience. And that’s too bad.”
The Big Ten ended last season as the second-highest conference in the nation in RPI. And it appears poised to have an impact this season. The preseason AP Top 25 included five teams — Maryland, Indiana, Northwestern, Ohio State and Michigan.
But it will be a challenge. The shortened nonconference schedule could play to the advantage of veteran teams and hurt the teams integrating several new faces into their rotations.
The Gophers might fall into that latter category. They return three starters from last season: Jasmine Powell, Sara Scalia and Gadiva Hubbard. But their rotation will have many new players. Kadi Sissoko will start after sitting out a season following her transfer from Syracuse. Laura Bagwell-Katalinich, a graduate transfer from Cornell, could start and the freshman class could earn major minutes.
That is assuming the conference — and the sport nationwide — can navigate the season despite the virus.
“You have to be fluid,” Wisconsin coach Jonathan Tsipis said. “You have to understand there might be a stoppage, either with practice or with cancellation of games.”
But for now? Let’s go.
“We have some challenges,” Northwestern coach Joe McKeown said. “But I feel we’ve learned a lot from what’s happened with football. And I think our country is learning. If we can develop a vaccine at some point that would make a huge difference. As far as college basketball? People are committed to playing. That’s important. I feel confident that there are a lot of smart people out there making decisions.”