It seems like there are WAY more “night before” stories this season than usually. I think we are all eager to get things rolling.
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Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma had to tell his players Monday that practices would cease for 14 days, and games would be canceled, due to a positive COVID-19 test within the program.
Auriemma felt badly – even guilty – that this was happening to the Huskies, after all of their hard work, preparation and patience getting ready for the season. But athletes surprised him with their strength.
“They came back at me with ‘Coach, these things are out of our control. And we’ll come back from this and we’ll deal with it, and we’re going to be even better than we were before going into it,’” Auriemma said.
“So as far as kids being resilient. Yeah. They want this so bad but they understand, you know, there’s nothing we can do to prevent this. And there’s nothing we can do to, to avoid the circumstances, you know, the consequences of what happens when it when it strikes.”
The positive test was from someone in the “Tier 1” group, defined as players, coaches and staff that come into contact with the team, including athletic trainers, strength and conditioning coaches and academic advisors. Though he stopped short of identifying the person, Auriemma confirmed that only part of the group is in isolation for the next 14 days.
“Through contact tracing, and….the normal protocols, our coaching staff is not in a quarantine situation at this time,” he said. “Our team is, but our coaching staff is not. So I’m not in quarantine.”
The shutdown means that the Huskies had to cancel two games this weekend at the Basketball Hall of Fame Women’s Challenge, which they were set to host at Mohegan Sun. They will also cancel their Dec. 4 game against Louisville at the Jimmy V Women’s Classic.
UConn, ranked at No. 3 in preseason polls, is the most prominent program to be forced to pause activities due to positive testing, but the list is growing. The announcement cast a pall over the entire season, as it seems clear that the Huskies will not be the last team to be affected by a disease that appears all but out of control across much of the country.
The quarantine is mandated by the State of Connecticut Department of Health, which Auriemma supports. But he voiced concern that there is lack of consistency nationwide because each school makes their own rules according to state guidelines.
“I think everybody’s going to be in this, in this scenario, at some point, either already has been, is, or will be, you can just pretty much predict that”, Auriemma said. “So the one thing that I’ve been struggling with, in talking with my coaches, and other coaches around the country, there seems to be such a widespread and such disparity between how each conference, each part of the country, each state, chooses to handle any of these occurrences.”
During the summer and early fall, the team divided into “pods” of four players who lived and practiced together, led by the three juniors, Evina Westbrook, Christyn Williams, and Olivia Nelson-Ododa. The Huskies have six freshmen, two sophomores, and no seniors on the roster. The Tier One group will all be re-tested Wednesday and Friday.
“We’re going to wait and see what the results are, and if we get everything that we expect to get, we’ll start back on the court in our pods again,” Auriemma said.
He expressed regret over the shutdown, considering how careful players were.
“But these kids want this so bad that, I call it, ‘They’ve been held hostage.’ Since the end of July. They can’t go anywhere. They can’t talk to anybody. They can’t do anythingm” Auriemma said. “You know, and for a couple hours every day they’re allowed out to get some recess. It’s incredible what’s happened to them.”
“And yet they hang in there, and they don’t talk about them, “I’m done with this!’ They don’t. They just talk about ‘when’s our first game? When are we playing? When’s our next practice?’”
Every basketball fan hopes that everything will be fine, and we will have a season of games, and even a tournament at the end. But having several teams cancelling the first part of their season does not bode well for anything like a normal basketball year.
Louisville’s situation demonstrates the difficulty all teams face in keeping the NCAA season viable. Although the team has not announced any positive tests, Louisville will miss both their game against the Huskies and their home opener against Middle Tennessee, which also announced a shutdown period yesterday after a positive COVID test.
Other teams that have had to shutdown temporarily include Utah, Seton Hall, Illinois State, Wright State, UMass Lowell, Coastal Carolina, and Kent State, just to name a few. Teams that have canceled their seasons entirely include the entire Ivy League, Florida A&M, Bethune-Cookman and Cal State Northridge.
UConn expects to play its first game against Big East opponent Butler at home on Dec, 15.
Full practices are set to re-commence Dec. 8.
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Kansas State guard Christianna Carr enters her junior season as a two-year starter, whose solid contributions on court, and as a leader, have helped her team to grow. She was named to the Big 12 All-Freshman team as a newcomer, after winning the conference weekly award twice. Last year she played a balanced game and filled in every column on the stat sheet.
This past June, as Carr and other Wildcat athletes protested social injustice after the killing of George Floyd, a student at the university tweeted a disparaging comment about Floyd. Carr and other athletes responded by saying they wouldn’t play if the student wasn’t kicked out of school. Shortly afterward, she received a direct message on her Twitter account of a cartoon image of a body hanging from a tree, with her head photoshopped onto it.
Carr grew up in Minneapolis and moved to Kansas as a high school junior, when her father Chris – who played in the NBA – got a job as an assistant coach at Kansas State for coach Jeff Mittie. Carr, who recently turned 21, has three siblings. Her major is communications studies.
So let’s start with last June’s unfortunate incident, where after you sent a tweet calling for action against a student who disparaged George Floyd, you were sent that photo in your Twitter direct messages. How did you feel about that, what happened afterward, and what did you learn from that incident?
When I first got it, I got a lot of death threats and nasty messages from people. I’d never received anything like that before. There are always going to be people who troll women’s hoops and say bad things about you because you’re a woman, and because you’re a woman and play basketball. But when I got that message I was like, wow. I don’t really understand why somebody would wish that upon somebody. I felt scared. I thought, do I send this to my mom? I don’t want her to freak out. So I sent it to my tutor and she said, you need to tell your parents as soon as possible. The FBI did an investigation and I talked to them. They said, we’ll talk to you and we’ll do our investigation, and you won’t have to hear about it again. I was in a stressful place at that point, and I told them, I’d rather just have you guys handle it. I haven’t heard anything more from that person, and I have no idea who that person is.
What have you learned about yourself and about life from this experience protesting social injustice?
It’s been a big learning period for me. It’s not only taught me how to use my voice in social injustice, but overall in things I believe in. I’ve looked at things with a different lens. A lot of people, including myself, have looked through the lens from what we’ve been taught. I’m lucky enough to have grown up in a house where we were taught to love everybody. As a little kid we had neighbors who were Muslim. I didn’t understand why they couldn’t come outside and play with me at certain times, why they couldn’t come over for lunch. Then I did their Ramadan stuff with them. During the month I’d not eat for the whole day with them, and then go over and eat the big dinner. I’d learn their ABC’s with them, and it was really cool, but I feel like that’s only a small scope.
I’d been looking through this scope of ‘love everyone,’ and then I ran into people who didn’t think like me, and I got mad. I’m half white, so I need to take stand for the people like my mom who does love everybody. When you come in contact with someone who doesn’t think like you……take the time to really understand why they think that way and counter it with facts, rather than countering it with anger. I took a lot of time to educate myself on these topics over the summer. The best way was to inject myself in a physical manner by going to protests, listening to people talk, watching videos and watching TED talks. I spent a lot of time in quarantine in my room with a laptop and a notebook, educating myself on why people think the way they think. One reason I got into communication studies is that it can help us grow together.
What kinds of conversations has the team had about social injustice? Did the Wildcats participate in any protests or demonstrations?
At first we weren’t together at the time, but we had a lot of Zoom calls. Once we started to get back here, the Jacob Blake situation happened. Our coach canceled practice so we could talk about it. When Jacob Blake was shot, we talked, and everybody got some things off their chest; there were some tears. At the time it felt like there was no kind of division, that everyone was on the same page. There was no gender and no skin color, no coach and player. It was sitting in a circle and trying to understand one another. I felt like it was a good raw, unedited way to experience that with your team. (Mittie) canceled practice because our hearts were heavy after we had that conversation. He said y’all can go to weights if you feel like it.
Recently put together a unity walk for our student athletes. We walked to Hern Field House….many school officials spoke, as did athletes from other teams like football and men’s soccer. It was just a great experience.
Going back to March, Big 12 teams were en route to the conference tournament when the NCAA shut down the season. How were you able to cope with the loss of the season and with entering the home quarantine world?
It was hard, and it was really weird to grasp what was going on. The Big 12 was in Kansas City this year, which is only two hours from us and easy travel. We got there, and by the time we put our luggage down we were told there would be no fans. When we began our first practice I saw our AD walk in….then coach told us to just play for the rest of practice. I thought, OK, the (conference) Tournament is cancelled.
Our AD was in tears. At that point we still thought there would be an NCAA Tournament, so we started the drive back to Manhattan. I woke up from my nap to over 50 text messages that said, “I’m so sorry about your season.” I looked at Twitter and saw our season was canceled. It all happened so quickly.
How did you spend your quarantine? How was the process in returning to school and practice, and what’s your daily routine like now as compared to previously?
Since my family does live in Manhattan, I did a lot of improvising with my quarantine workouts. I pushed my mom’s jeep around with my dad sitting in it. We have an outside hoop at my house, and I shot a lot. My brother and I would bike down to where there’s a hoop in the middle of nowhere, with a cornfield all around it. We’d bike there and shoot. So I can shoot really good in a big gym now.
When did you know basketball was for you?
It’s an interesting story because I didn’t start playing until I was in seventh grade. My first love wasn’t basketball – it was dance. My mom was a dancer for the Timberwolves and my dad played for the Timberwolves. That’s how they met. I was super into dance and I was on a dance team, but I was a little too tall for dance. I dilly-dallied in volleyball, but not at ahigh level. In seventh grade one of my best friends had boys basketball players over, and they taught her to shoot. I had no idea how to do that, and she showed me. From then on, I was playing.
Pretty soon I was in the gym with my dad, and I was getting pulled into things all the time. My dad had a gym in Minnesota, and I had a chance to work out with NBA players in seventh grade; I played them one on one. By my eighth grade year was the No. 5 player in the country. It all happened so fast. My goals went from, score five points in a game to, dad I want to be the top player in the country. It all happened within a year.
You’re only the seventh player from Manhattan, Kansas, to play at Kansas State. What made you pick the hometown team?
I grew up in Minnesota, and when my dad got the job he was like, we’re moving to Kansas. I didn’t even know where it was on the map. I had always got letters from K-State since my eight grade year, but my heart was set on UConn. I had also got an offer from South Carolina, and I was looking at UCLA. I didn’t know anything about K-State. My dad said, sit down and look at what schools really have to offer, because not every school’s going to be a fit for you. You have 40-plus offers, so the ball is in your court. You have the opportunity to find the best fit for you as a school.
So I sat down and looked at different schools, and being around K-State, I got to be in the facilities with my dad. I really started to fall in love with the atmosphere, and every time there was an unofficial visit, I was on the list. I went on every campus tour, and I lived 10 minutes away. But the thing that really sold it for me is when they played UConn here. It was sold out, and even tough our girls didn’t win, I saw the support from the fans and I looked at my mom and told her I wanted to commit. It truly was the best fit for me. I have never felt like it was the wrong decision.
What have you learned since you got to K-State? In what ways have you improved, and how are you looking to further expand your game and your leadership role?
My outlook on the game as a whole has changed – especially from last year to this year. In my freshman year my name was always in lights. I was getting so much attention and then my sophomore year hit and I was on the scouting report. I couldn’t just be a three-point shooter anymore – I had to expand my game. I really did struggle my sophomore year with my shooting percentage and motivation. So I changed my role this year. I was self-centered in the way I was thinking my sophomore year. My goal is to play in the WNBA, and I need to score more to do that. In reflecting on it during quarantine, I realized that I was a pain in the butt. I wasn’t shooting the ball that well, and even when we won I was pissed off because I wasn’t producing for the team. This summer I talked to coach Mittie, and he told me to hone back in on what made me a good player in the first place. So I went back to what made me really happy on my AAU team. What made it so much fun is that we shared the ball, ball trusted each other and wanted each other to succeed. So now this year it’s, how can I be the most unselfish selfish person possible? My new mindset has created trust with my teammates.
You seem like a joyful person. Where does that come from?
Honestly, my sister passed away when I was in second grade, from myocarditis. She was my best friend, we were super young. After she passed away, I looked at how joyful she was as a person. She was a light in my life all the time. In one second, it was taken away. We got into bed and were tucked in thinking there was going to be a tomorrow for her, and there wasn’t. I know it sounds really corny, but live today like it’s your last. You don’t know how many hearts you can touch during your time on Earth. She touched more than she knew as a four-year-old. I try to touch as many people as I can and put a smile on people’s faces. I thrive off good energy. I always want to try my best to be that light bubbly person in the room, making people laugh. If I can make people smile….you never know what’s going in on someone else’s life.
When we’re finally able to get back to a more “normal” life, what’s the first thing you’re going to do?
I have a lot of things on my list. After the season, my sisters and I were planning a Vegas trip with my mom. It would be great to go take a breath of fresh air and normality for a while.
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Coming into the 2020-21 season, many things are different for the Big Ten. Besides the possibility that the coronavirus pandemic may cause the shutdown of all collegiate athletics at any point, for the first time since it joined the conference in 2014, the University of Maryland is not the expected leader of the league. Instead, both the coaches and media preseason polls predicted that Indiana University would clinch the conference title.
The league has fallen short of expectations for many years, with most Big Ten teams making NCAA Tournament exits by the second round. But though the conference won’t likely produce an NCAA champion this season, the league has become much more equitable, and the conference title is open for the taking.
“We feel like we are deeper and stronger as a conference than we have ever been before,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said.
Since entering the Big Ten, Maryland reset the bar for the league, going to the Final Four that season. But beginning last year in particular, the competition appears to be gaining ground.
The 2019-20 season saw Northwestern University and the Terrapins share the Big Ten crown, and both teams, plus the Hoosiers, were poised to have great NCAA Tournament showings.
With just four days to go before the scheduled Nov. 25 season tip, the conference has yet to release their abridged conference schedule. But as teams prepare to tackle preconference play, the preseason rankings look different in 2020.
The favorite Hoosiers, who finished fourth last season, have four double-digit returners, led by all-conference honorees Ali Patberg and Grace Berger. Last season they advanced to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals for the first time in 14 years, and were set to host Tournament rounds 1 and 2 before the COVID-19 pandemic shut the event down.
Despite not adding a top 100 recruit this year, coach Teri Moren expects much of the team’s success will stem from Patberg.
“The deeper dive begins with Ali Patberg,” she said. “I’ve been asked about Ali’s leadership, not only off the floor but on the floor, and what is going to be important for us this season is for Ali Patberg to be selfish and for Ali Patberg to be incredibly aggressive offensively.”
“[Patberg has] never taken the backseat, but she’s always taken the side of trying to include everybody and facilitate. For us to have the success we want, Ali has to be an alpha.
University of Maryland
With an impressive 28-4 record last year, the Terps are entering this season unlike any other: ranked second in the Big Ten. Despite losing three of their six best scorers and 58.2 percent of their scoring in Kaila Charles, Blair Watson, and Stephanie Jones, there is opportunity for the team this year. Rising stars Ashley Owusu, the Jim and Kitty Delany Most Outstanding Player of the 2020 Big Ten Tournament, and Mississippi State transfer Chloe Bibby are poised to lead. Freshman Angel Reese looks primed to fill a hole on the court coming into the season, and her coaches have been impressed with her instant leadership and adaptability.
Coach Brenda Frese claimed that Reese is an all-around player ready to take on the task of conference play.
“[Reese has] got the confidence. She will call out exactly what I’m thinking before I say it so I don’t have to say it,” Frese said. “I’ve never had that take place for a freshman coming in, just an incredible blessing to have a player so confident. She wants to win and she’s not afraid to show her competitiveness.”
University of Michigan
One of the largest improvements within the Big Ten is expected to be seen in Michigan, which is returning four starters and nine letter-winners, including Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year Naz Hillmon. Last season she sat in the top five in the conference for scoring at 17.6 PPG, field goal percentage (.567), and rebounding at 8.7 (RPG). In addition, she played in 28 games where she scored in the double figures.
“One of the most important things with any program is experience, and having Naz back is tremendous,” Barnes Arico said. “We’ve got a solid core group and some young players as well. It’s been a good mix so far.”
After a second consecutive bid to the NCAA Tournament, the Wolverines will replace Kayla Robbins with first-year Cameron Williams, and maintain the trio of Hillmon, Amy Dilk, and Hailey Brown for consistent shooting and depth across the board.
Last season the Wildcats were unstoppable, and claimed a share of the conference title for the first time in 30 years. While they return Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year Lindsey Pulliam, who scored a career-high 18.8 PPG last season, Northwestern lost front court anchors Abi Scheid and Abbie Wolf. Utilizing Wolf’s dominance at the point and Scheid’s accuracy from beyond the arc, the ‘Cats were able to play an inside-out offense unparalleled in the league.
Coach Joe McKeown said losing that duo will allow other players to step into leadership roles on and off the court.
“What happens when you have seniors that have the kind of years that they have, you don’t really replace them, you move on. But it creates opportunities too. I think with Courtney Shaw…I think we’ll see a lot more of her,” he said.
Shaw looks primed for the starting center role and has proven to be a strong force from both ends. Most likely Jordan Hamilton will be prominent in the lineup to fill Scheid’s shooting role. While this team may not be as competitive as the previous season’s, Northwestern will remain a real contender coming into this season.
The Ohio State University
Ohio State enters the season with most of its scorers returning. Last year the Buckeyes surged late, and rode the wave to the Big Ten title game, where they fell to the Terps. Lead by Dorka Juhasz, they are perhaps coming in as the most consistent team in the league. Juhasz is not only a dominant force in the paint but also beyond the arc, making her a player to watch this season.
“[Juhasz] came here as someone effective around the basket with some perimeter skills,” coach Kevin McGuff said. “She’s worked significantly harder on her perimeter skills the last couple of years and she’s more of a complete player now and because of that, she’s got a lot of confidence in her game which is helping her become the leader we need her to be.”
University of Iowa
The Hawkeyes performed far beyond expectations last year, and were in the running for the conference title until the final week of the season, then ended in third place. They lost half of their scoring power to graduation, but Monika Czinano returns. Iowa brings in top-notch recruits, including Miss Iowa Basketball Caitlin Clark, who ESPN ranked as the No. 4 prospect in the country.
Coach Lisa Bluder is unsure whether the team will have the early-season footing of last year’s squad, but she is confident the Hawkeyes would be able to remain competitive.
“We’re very talented young, but we don’t have the experience that we need yet. We’ll get there, but we might have some growing pains,” she said.
The Scarlet Knights return both leading scorers Tekia Mack and Arella Guirantes, who was awarded preseason player of the year accolades in the coaches’ balloting. Guirantes was ninth in the nation in PPG last season, at 20.6. She made the decision to come back as a fifth-year senior.
“She does feel like she has some unfinished business, and she’s coming back with that mindset,” coach C. Vivian Stringer said.
Rutgers has an incredible recruiting class with three top 100 players. No. 6 recruit Diamond Johnson is expected to perform well, but all of the recruits must develop quickly for the team to be competitive within the conference.
Michigan State University
The Spartans return three starters, but lack the depth to truly be league-competitive this season. Junior guard Nia Clouden, who was named to both the coaches and media preseason All-Big Ten team, leads the way. She picked up additional leadership responsibilities last year after a few of her teammates were injured, and her scoring increased from 12 to 14.5 PPG. She also doubled her steals statistics.
“[Clouden’s] just a tremendous point guard. Somebody that really creates for other people at the same time, has sort of learned to be a different kind of scorer for us too and a little bit more of a presence on the court every possession,” coach Suzy Merchant said.
“So, she is certainly someone we are going to look at this season to build our team around and has done a really great job in the offseason committing to her game to get better.”
University of Nebraska
Last season the Huskers struggled in conference play and finished tenth, with a 7-11 record. Though they had a consistent offense, they failed to compete with more elite teams across the league. Big Ten All-Defensive team member Kate Cain will be integral for Nebraska, as she was first in the conference for blocks last season, smashing the school season record with 101.
“[Cain’s] been working to add a few things and elements to her game but I don’t know if she needs to be a true point center…she knows that the real next step for her is being able to expand and be comfortable on the perimeter,” coach Amy Williams said.
After losing both an elite defender and a dynamic scorer in Dominique Oden and Ae’Rianna Harris, they will look to newcomers to fill those shoes. Jayla Smith has already proven herself to be talented scorer both in the paint and beyond the arc, which is exactly what the Boilermakers need this season.
“We have more athleticism, more length than we’ve ever had here. So we’re just looking forward to having the chance to play against somebody else and hope to have a season.” coach Sharon Versyp said.
University of Minnesota
After top scorer Destiny Pitts was suspended last season for “unspecified conduct unbecoming of a member of the team,” she transferred to Texas A&M. Without her, Minnesota has a major hole to fill in its scoring that backcourt returners Sara Scalia, Gadiya Hubbard, and Jasmine Powell will have to handle. All three were impressive last season and will be efficient offensively; however, frontcourt dominance remains in question. The Gophers brought in new recruits and transfers for this goal, gearing up for a rebuild. But it is yet to be seen if they can truly compete this year.
Despite her uncertainty that the season will be able to be played in full, coach Lindsay Whalen remains optimistic.
“March is going to happen one way or another,” she said. “I hope we’re playing and that everything goes smoothly.”
University of Illinois
The Illini failed to make much traction last season and could only clinch two wins in conference play. This year they added a strong recruiting class and have maintained their core of Kennedi Myles and Jada Peebles. But even with a top 60 recruit, an impressive transfer and only two key player losses, it’s doubtful that Illinois will perform any better this year.
Coach Nancy Fahey, however, thinks that Arizona State transfer Eva Rubin might be the change the team needs.
“When you add 6-5 to your program, someone who came from an extremely winning program, it just changes the dynamic of what you can scheme with—what you can do,” she said.
University of Wisconsin
The Badgers have continued to struggle, as they have for the last several seasons, and things may not change much this year. Their lackluster 3-15 record from 2019-2020 tied them for 12th in conference and was their best finish during coach Jonathan Tsipis’ term at the helm. Wisconsin has failed to make the NCAA tournament for more a decade, and even with its top 100 recruit, there is no sign that 2020-2021 will be different.
Tsipis acknowledged that he needed to make some shifts due to the loss of seven players last season, but he has hope for his five recruits.
“Obviously we’re going to look a lot different,” he said. “When you graduate five seniors and have two others that decide to go in a different direction, you go back and see how your group is going to be best.”
Pennsylvania State University
Penn State’s offense was completely dependent on breakout star Kamaria McDaniel last season, who transferred to Baylor University after the conclusion of the season. But even with McDaniel’s nearly 20 points-per-game average, the Lady Lions lacked depth and only managed to win a lone game in Big Ten play.
Second-year coach Carolyn Kieger rebuilt the program at Marquette, and she aims to to the same at Penn State.
“Going through it once before is giving myself and my staff confidence, but doing it in a worldwide pandemic with 13 new players, absolutely a new feat we’re going through,” she said. “A lot of my credit goes to my players and the amount of time they spent building out chemistry right now.”
To fill McDaniel’s void, Kieger must utilize a group of guards rather than a single player. The players most likely to take on that role is returner Makenna Marisa and transfers Niya Beverly from Wisconsin and Kelly Jekot from Villanova. However, whether that will be enough to match such a high-efficiency performance by McDaniel is doubtful.
Teams are allowing very few, if any, fans this season. Media will be kept at a distance, and will sometimes be the only spectators in the arena. It will be great to see hoops back next week, but believe it: this will be a weird season.
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