December 28, 2020 

WCC check-in: Will a ‘normal’ approach to the schedule work?

Conference play begins Monday, though much uncertainty remains

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Finau Tonga. (Photo: Saint Mary’s Women’s Basketball on Twitter)

One of the most striking things about the 2020-21 college basketball season, with things like regular COVID testing and quarantine protocols as the depressing yet widely accepted baseline, has been seeing how different conferences approach scheduling their seasons.

All but one of the Power Five conferences, for instance, have opted to play more or less as normal, as far as things like travel are concerned. Meanwhile, many mid-major conferences are taking the Pac-12’s approach — the basic model of which has been in place since before this season — and employing the use of travel partners, with the addition of back-to-back games over either two or three days.

The America East, Conference USA and the WAC are among the conferences playing regular, same-site back-to-backs. The Missouri Valley Conference even nixed its original schedule in late November in order to make this switch, and in a release noted that “[t]he new format significantly reduces travel and places an emphasis on the health and safety of student-athletes, coaches and staff.” And with three of its 11 teams not competing, the MEAC split into northern and southern divisions, with programs playing four-game, home-and-home series with each of the other three teams in their region.

But on the west coast — and more specifically, in the West Coast Conference — none of this is the case. The conference is proceeding with a normal-looking schedule involving several instances of interstate travel, sometimes over the same weekend (the teams are spread out across California, Oregon, Washington and Utah). This is despite the fact that one team (Santa Clara) can’t play home games until at least Jan. 8 due to a county public health order, and even more have already been affected by COVID-19 safety protocols due to people within the program having the disease.

The season started with striking news, too, as Saint Mary’s star Sam Simons opted to stay in her native Australia rather than come to the United States to play. “If it was just basketball, I’d be over there in a heartbeat,” Simons recently told WCC columnist Jeff Faraudo. “In the end we thought it was best to stay in a place where it’s COVID-free. I’m safe, I’m with my family. It was a very family-based decision and something I thought was best for me in a really uncertain year.”

None of this is to say that the WCC can’t pull off its planned schedule. Like any decision to move forward with sports this year, it’s been all about putting some plan in place and hoping to learn from it while also hoping for the best, health-wise.

But if there’s one thing we learned from the WNBA, NWSL and other pro leagues, it’s that bubbles are the way to go if you want to prioritize health and safety. Anything else? Not so much. And when college students are involved — student being the operative word, unpaid the tacit adjective — you can’t just put them in a single location (or even put them in this current situation, to be fair) and not expect some part of their mental well-being, if not their scholastic endeavors, to suffer. (Plus, daily COVID testing for athletes of any kind — much less the calls for athletes to be among the first to be vaccinated — seems a questionable decision in light of front-line, essential workers in all fields not being afforded similar opportunities.)

If very recent history has its say, it’s hard to keep justifying the decision to play on, especially without an amended schedule that attempts to prioritize safety. Should more players, coaches or other program members contract COVID-19 once conference play begins, and the entire schedule is thrown out of whack as a result, it’s not only a question about how rescheduling or canceling games will look. It’s a question of when, exactly, enough is enough.

With Duke being the latest women’s basketball program to fully opt out of the season, and certainly the most high-profile, the natural next thought is whether more opt-outs are to come. But as it stands right now in the WCC, conference play does indeed begin today. Here’s what that looks like — for now.

Around the WCC

  • A slew of single-game records fell in San Francisco’s rout of Sacramento State on Tuesday: points in a game (108), points in a quarter (34), made field goals (46) and assists (36). Abby Rathbun scored a career-high 22 points, while Ioanna Krimili chipped in her first career double-double with 13 points and 11 assists.

  • Pacific and Loyola Marymount had opposite experiences at the UNLV Tournament the weekend before Christmas, going 2-0 and 0-2, respectively, against LSU and UNLV. For the Tigers, it marked their first-ever win against LSU; meanwhile, in their double-overtime victory against UNLV, Valerie Higgins was on triple-double watch with 24 points, 11 rebounds and 8 steals.

  • True to form, Gonzaga also put together back-to-back tournament wins at the Holiday Hoops Classic, holding off Eastern Michigan and routing North Alabama. Two Bulldogs had double-doubles in each game, with Jenn Wirth recording one in each.

  • Both Pepperdine and BYU saw games affected over the past week. The Waves’ game against Cal State Fullerton was postponed, while the Cougars’ matchup with Utah Valley University was also postponed … for the second time this season. Both changes were due to COVID-19 cases in the opposing programs.

  • The latest WCC Player of the Week (week of Dec. 21) is Pacific’s Valerie Higgins, while Finau Tonga of Saint Mary’s earned her second Freshman of the Week award after scoring 23 points in the Gaels’ first win of the season against UC Irvine. (Tonga went on to record a 15-point, 10-rebound double-double in the Gaels’ next win over previously unbeaten Nevada.)

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

Follow each team’s opening game

Subject to change. All times PT. The complete schedule can be found at the link above.

Monday, Dec. 28

  • BYU (4-1) vs. San Francisco (4-2) — 1 p.m., BYUtv

  • Pepperdine (3-1) vs. Portland (3-3) — 5 p.m., WCC Network

  • San Diego (3-2) vs. Santa Clara (4-2) — 6 p.m., WCC Network

  • Loyola Marymount (1-4) vs. Gonzaga (5-2) — 6 p.m., WCC Network

Wednesday, Dec. 30

  • Saint Mary’s (2-4) vs. Pacific (2-1) — 1 p.m., WCC Network

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