As it currently stands, Arizona women’s basketball will travel to Los Angeles to face USC on Dec. 31. It will be the Wildcats’ first game since Dec. 17 when they defeated NAU in Flagstaff. The question of COVID-19 shutdowns is still swirling around several programs, including Arizona’s, but for now, the team will be back on the hardwood within the week. What should fans expect this Pac-12 season?
The league is not as strong this year
The Pac-12 has been the best conference in women’s basketball for several years, but this season was expected to be a down year. It’s turned out to be even worse than expected for a variety of reasons. A “down year” still means two teams in the Top 5, but those are the only two teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.
Coming into the season, the league had its usual five teams ranked in the Top 25. While only Stanford and Oregon were in the Top 10, Oregon State, UCLA, and Arizona were still considered some of the best teams in the country. Now, Stanford and Arizona stand alone.
Injuries have devastated some of the top teams in the league, especially UCLA and Oregon. For the second straight season, UCLA has to grapple with a short bench due to injuries to key players. Oregon lost several contributors from last season to transfer but replaced them with incoming transfers who initially had the roster at a workable number. That fell apart before the regular season even got underway.
UCLA stands at 5-3 headed into Pac-12 play. The Bruins have dropped games against Kent State, South Dakota State, and Connecticut. Following the loss to Connecticut, they canceled, postponed, or rescheduled six straight games due to COVID-19 protocols within their program.
Oregon is 6-4. The Ducks have played a very challenging schedule while missing players like Te-Hina Paopao, Endyia Rogers, and Nyara Sabally. The concern is that they lost their final game of nonconference play. An unranked Kansas State team beat them by 12 points in Manhattan, Kan. despite the return of Rogers and Sabally.
As for Oregon State, the reasons for the losses are not as easily explained. With the return of Kennedy Brown from an ACL injury that kept her out last season, they are in better shape when it comes to roster numbers than they were last year. Still, they have lost three games already this year and dropped out of the Top 25 fairly early.
Most of the teams are still in fairly good shape as far as their NET rankings, but the league is not in the same position it has been.
COVID-19 protocols are already causing problems
Arizona missed two of its games during the nonconference portion of the season. The Wildcats didn’t play at UC Riverside due to issues within the Highlanders’ program, then had their own problems with COVID-19 force the cancellation of the game against Texas in Las Vegas. Now, UCLA has already canceled a conference game nine days in advance.
UCLA is one of the teams that will have serious problems if the NCAA does not rescind its 25-game requirement for NCAA Tournament eligibility. The Bruins have played just eight games this season. They have already rescheduled one conference game and postponed two more. Because the league returned to its regular 18-game schedule this season, that means that they need to play in 17 games during the conference regular season and tournament just to be considered for the NCAA Tournament.
Arizona’s straits are not quite that dire, but the Wildcats could have concerns if too many games are canceled. They completed 10 in the nonconference portion, so they need to reach 15 in conference play to qualify under the current rules. Forfeits do not count towards that limit.
With so many teams located in California, the threat of postponed and canceled games is a bigger concern. Last season, those teams faced some of the strictest pandemic rules in the nation. Stanford spent most of its season traveling around the West Coast because it was not allowed to leave Santa Clara County and return without quarantining.
Other teams that face the possibility of not reaching the 25-game limit are Washington (8 games played), Oregon (10 games played), Oregon State (10 games played), and USC (10 games played). Everyone else in the league has completed at least 11 games with ASU alone reaching the typical 12-game mark.
The ball is in the NCAA’s court on this right now. It is still mulling over the possibility of lowering the limit like it did last year. Teams were required to play 13 games to qualify last season.
Lauren Ware should be in a position to return
Ware was injured less than 30 seconds into Arizona’s Dec. 9 game against North Dakota State. While there were initial fears of more serious damage, the team reported at the end of the game that it was just a dislocated knee. She was expected back within two weeks, but head coach Adia Barnes said that she would probably not play Ware until the Dec. 31 game at USC in order to give her extra time to heal.
Arizona’s rotation will shorten dramatically
The nonconference was the time to get bench players lots of experience, and Barnes was able to do that in several contests. Just not quite as many as she planned.
Barnes hoped to play her reserves more in the Paradise Jam, but close games against Vanderbilt and DePaul forced her to keep her starters and primary rotation players in for more minutes than planned. Those top players will be getting the bulk of the minutes going forward.
The Wildcats have a fairly large roster of 15 scholarship players. In the first year of super seniors, Barnes could have extended that roster even further since Sam Thomas doesn’t count towards the scholarship limits. Even 15 is a lot for Barnes, though, so she opted not to do that.
Having that many players inevitably means that many will not play significant minutes during conference season. Last season, eight players averaged at least 15.5 minutes per game and appeared in at least 26 of the 27 games played. The year before, it was eight players averaging at least 13.9 mpg and playing in at least 25 of 31 games. While Arizona is a much deeper team this year, there are still only so many minutes to go around.
Based on rotations during the early part of the season, the regular rotation may stretch a bit this season, but it’s unlikely to be more than 10 players. It will probably consist of Shaina Pellington, Bendu Yeaney, Cate Reese, Sam Thomas, Lauren Ware, Helena Pueyo, Taylor Chavez, Ariyah Copeland, Koi Love, and Madi Conner. Aaronette Vonleh and Gisela Sanchez might see time, but it will be limited by necessity. That will make playing time for Anna Gret Asi, Derin Erdogan, and Semaj Smith difficult to come by.