Pac-12 faces scheduling hurdle in bid to win women’s basketball title

If playing in the same conference as five Associated Press top-25 teams wasn’t hard enough, Mark Trakh was dealt another blow when the USC coach learned his team had a positive COVID-19 test earlier this month. Already having gone without summer workouts because of the pandemic, the Trojans had to stop practices again and enter quarantine.

On Tuesday, with eight days until their season opener, the Trojans still hadn’t returned to practice.

“We’re going to choose up sides and play a pick-up game basically [on] Nov. 25,” Trakh said with a smile during the Pac-12 media webinar Tuesday.

With the season approaching, the best women’s basketball conference in the nation is facing an even tougher opponent in the surging COVID-19 pandemic. As cases skyrocket nationwide and many states tighten restrictions, teams are cautiously approaching the Nov. 25 start date and holding onto hope for an opportunity to end the Pac-12’s decades-long national championship drought.

“Everyone’s middle name is flexible,” said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, whose 1992 national championship was the last one won by a Pac-12 team. “We just have to do whatever we’re allowed to do and enjoy each day one day at a time.”

VanDerveer’s No. 2-ranked Cardinal were picked to finish first in both the media and coaches preseason polls released Tuesday. Stanford leads the Pac-12’s five ranked teams, which include No. 7 Arizona, No. 9 UCLA — which was picked fourth in both preseason conference polls — No. 10 Oregon and No. 18 Oregon State.

USC was picked to finish seventh in the conference media poll and sixth in the coaches poll. After the COVID-19 pause, the Trojans are scheduled to resume practices Wednesday, exactly one week before their opener at Galen Center against Loyola Marymount. Between the abbreviated offseason training opportunity and the unexpected break, the Trojans are continuing to roll with the pandemic punches.

“Everything’s fluid,” Trakh said. “You’ve got to be ready to change on a dime.”

For coaches who thrive on meticulously planning their program’s futures, some of the sudden changes have been maddening. Scheduling has been chaos. Teams struggle to find — and keep — nonconference opponents under changing travel restrictions, testing standards and test results.

Arizona coach Adia Barnes, whose Wildcats have their highest preseason ranking in program history and the school’s first AP preseason All-American in guard Aari McDonald, was so desperate to fill out a nonconference schedule that the coach was looking for leads on Twitter this week after the Wildcats had two games canceled because of the pandemic. Barnes listed nine open dates, including Nov. 25.

The fact she needed to resort to a social media plea was “kind of comical,” Barnes said. It’s also completely on brand with 2020, which has required fast thinking and unorthodox solutions at every turn.

Coaches got a small scheduling assist from the league as the Pac-12 organized a 22-game schedule, allowing teams up to three nonconference games. Teams in other leagues with shorter conference slates are trying to fill as many as eight nonconference games.

The expanded Pac-12 schedule allows teams to compete under uniform testing protocol and erases any potential scheduling advantages teams enjoyed in previous years with an unbalanced slate. Teams will play a double round-robin conference schedule this season.

“It means you’re going to have a true champion,” said Oregon coach Kelly Graves, whose Ducks are reloading with the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class to replace stars Sabrina Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally.

The three-time defending conference champion Ducks were one of the NCAA championship favorites last season. The Pac-12, which was poised to have six teams in the NCAA tournament field, hoped to at least get multiple teams to the Final Four if not bring the title back to the West.

Pac-12 teams won’t have many opportunities to prove themselves against top national talent on the way back to the NCAA tournament this year, but they believe the conference is a perfect proving ground for the postseason.

“We earned the credibility around the nation to be able to beat up on each other, so to speak,” UCLA coach Cori Close said. “But it’s brutal. We think we’re the No. 1 conference in the country and to have 22 out of your 25 games be against those players, you better get ready.”

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