July 21, 2020 

NCAA women’s basketball committee contemplates options with 2020-21 season in question

Committee chair Nina King says all options are on the table

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Right around now, the NCAA women’s basketball committee should be in San Antonio for its annual summer meeting at the site of the upcoming Final Four. Members should be touring the facilities, working out logistics, and getting on the same page to help produce the 2021 edition of the sport’s biggest event, the NCAA Tournament.

With the COVID-19 pandemic still exercising its stranglehold on the college sports world, the committee instead met virtually last week for two days over Zoom. And with a full college basketball season becoming less likely by the day, the committee came out of those meetings without a clear answer as to what the NCAA Tournament will look like, if there is one at all.

“There are still so many questions going into this year,” committee chair Nina King said in an interview with The Next. “First and foremost, our priority is protecting the integrity of the process and coming up with the very best bracket that we can, given the circumstances.”

One possible set of circumstances: a season that starts in January instead of November, featuring only conference games.

The advantages would be two-fold: First, the obvious, which is that it buys the world an extra two months to get a better handle on this virus and make potential treatments available. Second, it allows conferences to standardize their procedures based on the needs and resources of their members. Schools could travel to each other’s campuses and interact knowing they are all following the same COVID-19 rule book.

If this happens, however, it would significantly change how the committee approaches the NCAA Tournament. Without non-conference games, the committee won’t be able to assess how teams from outside of the power structure perform against the nation’s best. There would also be significantly fewer head-to-head matchups among tournament teams and far fewer data points to draw from. It may be easy to rank the top teams in the ACC, but comparing them to, say, the top teams in the Big Ten, would suddenly become more subjective than data driven.

Of course, if your average bracket enthusiast online can figure out those problems, the committee must also be aware. And it is. King, who is also the deputy director of athletics at Duke, says specifics have not yet been discussed on how the selection process — or the tournament itself — might change, but she also said she would not rule anything out, including a one-year change in the tournament format.

“I don’t think anything is off the table,” she said. “We just have to be flexible.”

One change was going to happen this year, regardless; the women’s game has adopted its version of the NET to replace the RPI. The men’s game has used the NET for two years now and has tweaked it to fit its needs. King says the version of the NET that the women will use is similar to the current men’s version with slight (secret) changes. If non-conference games are eliminated this season, however, that will significantly reduce the sample size the NET will use and impact teams’ strength of schedules. King and the rest of the committee will have to find another way to compare teams in different leagues, knowing the NET may not be reliable. King says the NCAA is studying how the NET might be impacted and will work with the team at Google that helped develop the formula in the first place to figure out how to proceed.

The committee will meet again this summer at a date to be determined. Traditionally, it would be around the time of the mock selection event — an annual meeting in Indianapolis where committee members, coaches, and media can participate in putting together a fake bracket, using the same criteria that the committee will use in March. This year, a date on a virtual version of this has not been set, but the committee will meet again at some point before the fall. Hopefully by that point, the committee can emerge with more clarity on what the tournament will look like, if there is even a season at all.

“I’m hopeful there is going to be a season,” King said, not exactly brimming with confidence. It underscores the theme of the summer at the NCAA: nothing is for certain.

Written by Russell Steinberg

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