January 11, 2021 

WCC check-in: San Diego pauses, but the season rolls on

Revisiting the West Coast Conference's approach to the season, plus notes from around the conference

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San Diego’s leading scorer in 2020-21, Jordyn Edwards, left, celebrates during the Toreros’ game against Biola on Nov. 19, 2019. (Photo: USD Athletics)

When I addressed the precariousness of the West Coast Conference’s planned conference schedule just two weeks ago, I wrote it knowing we weren’t far off from COVID-related pauses. Not solely because of this schedule — which, to recap, looks no different from any other season — but because the risks of playing at all demand that consideration.

On Jan. 1, Pepperdine went on pause after a positive test within the program. This past Friday, San Diego announced it would do the same, throwing at least its next five games into the balance — and just one day after a scheduled matchup with Pepperdine had already been postponed due to the Waves’ own pause.

When conference games resume on Thursday, as the conference settles into its more regular Thursday/Saturday game schedule, four of the six teams in action will be playing their sixth games, while two will be playing their fifth. The latter two each had games postponed. Of the remaining four teams, Pepperdine (two games played) and Loyola Marymount (five games) weren’t scheduled to play anyway, and San Diego (three games) vs. Pacific (four games) was postponed due to San Diego’s pause. On Saturday, with all 10 teams on the schedule, Pepperdine is set to return to action, while Saint Mary’s is the next team affected by San Diego’s stoppage.

It’s frustrating seeing programs affected by COVID-19 so readily. Now it seems to be a given that every team’s schedule will be massively disrupted at some point, whether by their own COVID protocols or those of their opponents. Some conferences attempted to mitigate this in advance by scheduling back-to-back, single-site series — easier to reschedule in the event of a pause because in a given weekend, both teams lose the same number of games. (In the case of the Missouri Valley Conference, with two teams affected by COVID protocols during opening weekend, their respective planned opponents played each other instead.)

But the WCC can’t do that. With teams either playing two home games a week against different teams, a home and an away game, or two away games (sometimes in two different states), there’s not much space left to negotiate the number of games that must be rescheduled, lest the conference add even more games to a given week, and thus more movement to a team’s travel schedule.

In more prominent conferences, the question of who’s going to make the NCAA Tournament is an ongoing discussion, as teams like UConn (and their planned opponents) have struggled with the cancellations of top-tier non-conference matchups that can help boost their résumés come March. But these teams are still highly-regarded nationally — their reputation precedes them. That much was clear when the Huskies weren’t just ranked in their first two weeks without games due to a program pause, but they were in the top five, even receiving first-place votes.

But in the WCC, when non-conference is over and the only hope most teams have of making the NCAA Tournament at all rests on a strong performance in conference play, followed by a big run at the conference tournament, losing the chance to play games hurts. Losing the chance to, say, disrupt Gonzaga’s nation’s-eighth-best home winning streak hurts. So much more just hurts.

Yet when I consider the 2021 NCAA Tournament, I can’t help but think of where we were last March. How much has changed, and, truly, how little has changed. Testing is readily available and frequently administered, programs have plans in place in case someone contracts COVID-19, players and staff are (mostly) wearing masks when they should. But we’re still in the throes of this thing, and though the vaccine is a reality now, there’s absolutely no chance that college athletes will — or should — be near the top of the list of those who will have received both shots by March. We’re still dealing with COVID-19 every single day. Accepting that people will test positive is shameful when we know how debilitating the non-lethal effects of this disease can be.

From a basketball standpoint, it’s difficult to reconcile any sort of structure of a national championship tournament this season. With so many variables at stake, with programs being affected vastly differently by pauses and cancellations and team opt-outs, with no way to balance that out, is it worth it to keep going?

When I wrote about this two weeks ago, part of me truly hoped I was way off-base, buying into the fact that because there is a season in place now, it has to work out somehow. But then I go back to around this time last year, where we had no reason to believe the season would end how it did. And now that we know that’s a possibility once again — if not for everyone, then for the 15 teams that have already opted out of the season, and for the many more that will surely join them — it’s difficult to keep convincing myself that moving forward is the right thing to do.

I hope no one from San Diego, or Pepperdine, or any of the other WCC teams that have paused this season, is adversely affected by this virus for longer than a few weeks of mild or no symptoms. I hope, as a basketball fan, that something works out nationally, that we get uninterrupted games through March and April in some form or fashion.

But as much as I can hope, as much as conferences can plan, none of us can know for sure what’s to come; we only know what has already happened. There’s a deadly, contagious virus out there, and as much as we’d like to believe otherwise in the name of the game we love, the broader threat isn’t going away anytime soon. As it has already shown us, though our first encounter with it seems so far away now, COVID-19 doesn’t much care to stay outside the confines of a college basketball season.

Around the WCC

  • The complete list of San Diego’s currently-postponed games: LMU (Jan. 9), Pacific (Jan. 14), St. Mary’s (Jan. 16), Gonzaga (Jan. 21) and Portland (Jan. 23).

  • San Francisco’s Saturday win was a special one, as it marked head coach Molly Goodenbour’s 300th career win across all levels. But Goodenbour was more pleased with it being the Dons’ first conference win, saying, “It makes everybody feel a little bit better about where we are at in a positive way.”

  • After routing Portland over the weekend in a stark reversal of the teams’ last meeting, which the Pilots won, Gonzaga has a stronger hold on its first-place showing, now the only undefeated team in the conference. “I think that we’re kind of on a roll right now,” said senior forward Jenn Wirth, who tallied her seventh double-double of the season. “… This game was something where there was a little bit of a sting from last year, but moving forward we just have to keep playing hard.”

  • With San Francisco’s win, the only two WCC teams to not yet record a win in conference play are Saint Mary’s and Pepperdine. The Gaels face a tough challenger in second-place BYU for their only contest of the week, while the Waves can notch their first win — assuming their un-pause goes as planned — when they travel to LMU on Saturday.

  • The new NET rankings, put in place in women’s basketball beginning last week to replace the RPI, see two WCC teams in the top 100 as of this writing: Gonzaga is No. 22, and BYU is No. 68. The pair are scheduled to meet for the first time this season on Jan. 23. (Pacific was in the top 100 in a previous iteration of the rankings, which are updated daily.)

  • Despite losing to BYU on Thursday, LMU still went a perfect 9-of-9 from the free throw line, its first 100% outing there since 2010 and just its third ever. Plus, the Lions own the WCC’s best 3-point percentage in conference games at 35.9% and the second-best 3-point defense; they also lead the conference in blocks per game.

  • For the foreseeable future, Santa Clara will keep playing its home games (including this weekend’s) at the Kaiser Permanente Center in nearby Santa Cruz, Calif., as Santa Clara County’s ban on contact sports remains in place.

See complete results from the WCC’s recent games here.

Two to watch

Subject to change. All times PT; records are in WCC play. The complete schedule can be found at the link above.

Santa Clara (3-2) is the only team this week playing both its games against teams with winning records, while also having a winning record itself. Here’s how the Broncos’ weekend looks:

  • Thursday, Jan. 14: vs. Gonzaga (5-0), 6 p.m., WCC Network

  • Saturday, Jan. 16: vs. Portland (3-1), 2 p.m, WCC Network

In Gonzaga, as has tended to be the case in recent years, Santa Clara will find a top-25 team that’s tough on the glass and has a propensity to run up the score relative to its stifling defense. The Broncos have the best 3-point defense in the conference, but all things told, the Zags have been more of an inside team this season, relying on scorers like Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth and Jill Townsend. And led by Aussie duo Haylee Andrews and Alex Fowler, Portland poses a threat all over the court.

Santa Clara’s strengths should play a role in both contests, though, and that includes its conference third-best 10.09 steals per game, as well as its third-best offensive and defensive rebounding marks, neither of which are far behind Gonzaga and both of which outrank Portland. Top scorers Lindsey VanAllen, Ashlyn Herlihy and Merle Wiehl will have a great chance to shine if the Broncos, a fast-paced team relative to the rest of the conference, can dictate the speed of each game rather than letting their more efficient opponents slow things down.

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