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How the unbalanced schedule cost Arizona women’s basketball in Pac-12 Tournament seeding

Opinion: There are a lot of improvements the conference can make in how it promotes women’s sports. Considering the impact of scheduling is one of them.

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USC v Arizona Photo by Rebecca Noble/Getty Images

In a perfect world, a schedule is set ahead of time and teams play out those schedules. The world hasn’t been normal the past two years let alone perfect, so it’s understandable that it has impacted women’s basketball. Arizona women’s basketball learned the hard way this season.

The Wildcats lost some games they shouldn’t have, but they still had a strong chance to finish the season as the No. 2 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament if all of their games had been played. In the end, COVID-19 outbreaks at California and Washington partnered with rescheduling decisions. Those issues combined with the unexpected losses to drop Arizona to fourth. That means a potential semifinal meeting with Stanford.

A second meeting with the Cardinal would have been a very good thing for the Pac-12 during the regular season. Following the national title run, the only team that ESPN regularly scheduled this season was Stanford. National runner-up Arizona was almost completely ignored by the network.

Like it or not, ESPN games are a big deal for all Pac-12 sports, especially women’s sports. Without ESPN, there is little talk about the league on the national stage. That continued even as two teams were ranked in the AP Top 5 at points this season and in the Top 10 for over four straight months.

Now, the Pac-12 may finally get that second game between last year’s top two teams, but it won’t be televised on a national basis. If it occurs, it will be on the Pac-12 Network. Only the conference final gets a date on ESPN2.

All of this came to pass because of how rescheduling was handled. The Pac-12 was not open about how involved it was. Repeated attempts to get them to explain how the process worked were ignored.

What is known is that the conference didn’t build in any open dates for makeup games this season. It also didn’t take advantage of some potential early opportunities to move games around so later dates could be opened for rescheduling. For example, during the first week of the season, the opponents of both Arizona schools and both Oregon schools went into COVID-19 pauses. It seemed to open a few possibilities that might have created rescheduling dates later in the year.

Rather than either moving the rivalry games or having the Arizona schools and Oregon schools move one of their weekends up, Oregon and ASU opted to play meaningless out-of-conference games. In the case of the Ducks, it was filler against an NAIA school. The Sun Devils played Lipscomb, a lower-level Division I team, in a practice gym without fans.

When it came time to reschedule conference games, Arizona was able to arrange to go to Los Angeles twice later in the season to make up games at USC and UCLA. The California and Washington games were effectively canceled.

The rescheduling decisions appear to have been made in hopes that Arizona State would win enough to get into the NCAA Tournament. Instead of Cal playing Arizona on Feb. 16, they rescheduled against ASU. It turned out to be a colossal waste of time. Not only did these teams end up No. 9 and No. 11 in Pac-12 standings, but ASU didn’t even make it to Berkeley and the game was declared a forfeit.

The Phoenix media reported that ASU had an issue with its charter to Berkeley. The conference offered to push the start time back and have ASU use other travel options, but the Sun Devils deemed it not “in the best interest of the health and welfare of the student-athletes.”

Both positions are understandable in a historical context. The Pac-12 has set a precedent on this issue. When Arizona volleyball had its commercial flight to Boulder canceled last fall, they were forced to travel all night. The match was pushed back to a later start time, but the team arrived just hours before they were set to play. While Arizona won that contest, head coach Dave Rubio was angry that the conference forced them to play under those conditions or forfeit. He, too, felt it was contrary to the best interests of the athletes.

The bigger question is why the league did not require California to play Arizona. Why was the decision to play ASU allowed to stand? If only one of those games was going to be made up, why wasn’t it the one that was obviously going to have more effect on teams at the top of the standings who have earned the right to have a better chance at the title?

In Washington’s case, it did not reschedule any of the four games it “postponed” due to COVID-19 protocols. Two of the four were against Stanford and at Arizona. If Arizona was not going to get the option to play at California on Feb. 16, that date could have been used for Washington to travel to Tucson and make up its game against the Wildcats. Instead, neither was done.

Even if it was Arizona’s decision not to play those games, it is in the conference’s best interest to have its top teams playing. In these cases, it should not be left to the teams. It’s part of taking responsibility for marketing the product, which the Pac-12 needs to do. The more financially stable women’s sports are, the less subsidizing they need from the revenue sports. That is good for everyone. Promoting the top Pac-12 teams is one way the league can make them financially stable—and it costs it nothing extra to do it.

Last season, Arizona had five games postponed but none were made up. There were suggestions that teams didn’t want to make up games, especially games against teams at the top of the standings. Early in this season, Arizona head coach Adia Barnes didn’t discount that theory, stating that if the Pac-12 declared forfeits immediately instead of rescheduling, teams would “find the bodies” to play.

This season, more games were rescheduled, likely because the NCAA never reduced the 25-game requirement for tournament consideration. However, rescheduling decisions still had an uneven effect on teams across the conference. Both third-seeded Washington State and second -seeded Oregon played one more game than the Wildcats. In Arizona’s case, the effect was losing out on a better opportunity for a top-two finish and a clearer path to the Pac-12 Tournament finals.