January 4, 2021 

Three ways that Ivy League women’s basketball will be different post-COVID-19

Some things will change out of necessity, and some pandemic innovations will stick

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On November 12, the Ivy League closed the book on the 2020-21 women’s basketball season before it started, announcing that no winter sports would take place because of health and safety concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a result, the Ancient Eight teams will go nearly 22 months between conference games, from their most recent game on March 7, 2020, to the start of conference play in January 2022. But when conference play finally resumes, it will look somewhat different from the Ivy League we knew before the pandemic.

Here are three changes coming to the league in 2021-22—and one idea that may be considered at a later date:

1.     A new schedule

In January 2020, the Ivy League announced that it would extend conference play from eight to 10 weeks for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons. The decision was made after consulting with student-athletes, coaches, and administrators, and a conference spokesperson confirmed to The Next that the 10-week schedule “is still the plan for the foreseeable future” beginning next season.

The new schedule halves the number of back-to-back games that Ivy League women’s and men’s teams will play. Back-to-backs on Friday and Saturday nights have historically been a hallmark of Ivy League competition—in fact, Penn women’s basketball head coach Mike McLaughlin recently told the Associated Press’s Doug Feinberg that he had received “five or six” calls from coaches in other conferences asking how to prepare their teams for back-to-backs, as many other conferences are temporarily adopting that format during the pandemic. 

However, Ivy League executive director Robin Harris said in the league’s announcement that the change “decompresses the schedule,” “continues to minimize the impact on missed class time,” and helps student-athletes perform at their best on the court. The new week-by-week schedule is below:

Week 1 – one game
Week 2 – two games (Friday and Saturday)
Week 3 – two games (Saturday and Monday (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day))
Week 4 – one game 
Week 5 – one game
Week 6 – two games (Friday and Saturday)
Week 7 – one game
Week 8 – two games (Friday and Saturday)
Week 9 – one game
Week 10 – one game

The change was possible in part because Princeton moved its final exams from January to December, in line with the other Ivy schools, starting with the 2020-21 academic year.

2.     Uneven class sizes

Yale’s Camilla Emsbo (2) is one of at least 30 Ivy League women’s basketball players on a leave of absence from school. Photo credit: Sam Rubin, Yale Athletics

In response to the uncertainties created by the pandemic, at least 30 Ivy League women’s basketball players took leaves of absence from school for the 2020-21 academic year, based on my conversations with athletic communications staff at each school and coaches’ statements to Feinberg. That allowed those players to retain a year of athletic eligibility in the league, as league rules generally only permit students to compete during their first four years of undergraduate enrollment.

The leaves of absence didn’t affect all teams equally; for example, Princeton had half of its players and Yale had 46% of its players take leaves of absence, whereas no Penn or Cornell players took leaves of absence. But teams that were impacted will have imbalanced rosters next season if leaves of absence are clustered among certain grade levels.

At Yale, for instance, all three would-be sophomores—Klara Astrom, Jenna Clark, and Ayla Elam—took the year off. The Yale Daily News reported in September that staying in the same class as Astrom and Clark “strongly impacted” Elam’s decision. As a result, Yale will have a large sophomore class next season but no juniors.

Princeton is experiencing a similar situation with many of its would-be juniors, which has also impacted recruiting for head coach Carla Berube. Berube told The Next, “It sort of flip-flopped… I thought I was going to have to have a big [high school] class of ’22, and that’s just not the case. But now the class of ’23 is going to be a little bit bigger.”

3.     Permanent changes to basketball operations

“We’re all trying to be creative and [find] new ways to do things better,” McLaughlin said of the Ivy League’s head coaches during the pandemic. “…We use the word Zoom almost 10 times a day now; why didn’t we do this before?”

McLaughlin and his peers plan to keep using Zoom for many purposes post-pandemic. For instance, Columbia head coach Megan Griffith said that Zoom can make meetings with players more convenient. “[Players] don’t just have to come to the office for us to get things done,” she said. “If it doesn’t make sense—you need to get something done, if you’re not feeling well—I can catch you up about practice or the workout” over Zoom.

Griffith and Berube both added that switching from phone calls to Zooms has improved group conversations with alumnae because the video format makes it easier to see who wants to speak and facilitates additional types of calls, including mentorship opportunities. Berube explained, “You have alums in California that can’t get to campus for a mentor day. But hey, let’s get a Zoom with one of them and talk about what they’re doing and what field they’re in and all that.”

Zoom has also been a lifeline for recruiting during the pandemic as coaches try to “bring [their] university to [recruits’] phones,” as Berube put it. Some of that will continue after the pandemic, though coaches will still rely heavily on in-person interactions.

In addition, whether through Zoom or in person, Harvard head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith intends to spend more time on players’ mental development going forward.

“I’ve always tried to work on the mental side of performance,” she said, “but [we’re taking] giant strides now because of the time, and I think we’ll continue to do that.”

Down the road: Could the Ivy Tournament expand to eight teams?

The first Ivy League Basketball Tournament was held in 2017, and since then, it has allowed the top four teams in the regular season to compete for the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. “I think the tournament’s fantastic,” Griffith told Feinberg. “… It just makes every weekend, every game count.”

That contrasts with the previous system, which gave the regular-season champion the automatic bid and quickly eliminated some teams from NCAA Tournament contention.

Griffith and Delaney-Smith both told Feinberg that they want to expand the Ivy League Tournament to include all eight teams. However, if the previous battle to establish a tournament is any indication, that change could take time.

“Being in coaches’ meetings for 39 years, I got really, really, really tired of fighting for a tournament,” Delaney-Smith said. She believes that getting the men’s teams to support a tournament was pivotal, and they will likely be a major factor in any expansion discussions.

Until then, Delaney-Smith will settle for four teams. “What we have, the three years we’ve had it, has been very, very exciting and my players love it,” she said. “We love it. It’s great for the league.”

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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