The Pac-12’s ranked teams have each got off to strong starts in the first few days of NCAA college basketball season.
No. 2 Stanford, No. 7 Arizona, No. 9 UCLA, No. 10 Oregon and No. 18 Oregon State all won comfortably in their debuts over four days, showcasing depth, versatility and perseverance.
On opening day Wednesday, the Cardinal ran past Cal Poly, 108-40. Junior Lexie Hull lead five Stanford players in double figures, with 19 points. Freshman Cameron Brink scored 17 and sophomore Haley Jones, whose year was cut short in January by an injury, returned to score 16 points and grab 11 rebounds. It was an impressive display by a team that features four sophomores and three freshmen.
“It was really fun to see everybody out there,” Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer said. “I’m just so thankful we can play.”
The Bruins were also supposed to open the season that day, but had to postpone the match up when opponent Fullerton’s COVID tests weren’t returned on time. The two teams faced off Friday, and UCLA easily handled the Titans, 98-49. Sophomore guard Charisma Osborne lead four of her teammates in double figures with a career-high 31 points for the win. Michaela Onyenwere added 22.
With only eight players, the Bruins know they have to be both focused and versatile. Osborne, who made the conference all-freshman team last season, said she is trying to step up her contributions.
“Going into this game, (coaches) really wanted me to be aggressive this year as a scorer, and in getting teammates involved, to continue on with what I did last year,” she said.
Onyenwere said it is especially important now, with a small team and no home crowd, to lock into the game plan from the beginning.
“Even when we had fans we always talked about being intrinsically- motivated, and now it’s even more important to have to bring our own energy from our own circle,” she said.
The Ducks have seemingly the opposite scenario, with 13 players on a roster that is deeper than last season’s, which the team spent the entirety of ranked within the top five. Though the majority of the roster consists of newcomers, it is not a rebuild.
Redshirt sophomore Nyara Sabally has been with the team for two years, sitting out with injury. Transfers Sedona Prince and Taylor Mikesell were also with Oregon last year, sitting out per NCAA rules. The team’s five freshmen were part of the nation’s top signing class.
In their opener, the Ducks dominated Seattle University, 116-51. Mikesell scored 28 points, including 8-10 from the three-point line. Prince had 17 points, senior Lydia Giomi 15, junior Taylor Chavez 11, and Sabally, 10. Eleven players scored and the team had just three rebounds on the night.
Coach Kelly Graves said he tried numerous lineup combinations, including a few minutes in the third quarter when all five freshmen were on the floor, and will continue to do so.
“We’ll go with a deeper bench for a while,” he said. “I don’t know which group will play better with each other, because we’ve got so many moving parts. At some point during Pac-12 play we will tighten it up and go with certain rotations. But for now, it will be a fluid situation.”
Mikesell, who was a sharpshooter at Maryland before coming West, said she will continue to fire from long range.
“Because of the confidence I have, if I shoot the ball and I miss it, it’s more of a fluke,” she said.
Giomi said having so much extra personnel is an adjustment.
“I think we have tons of potential because we have a deeper bench then we’ve ever had,” she said. “I was warming up with the returners and we were looking around saying, we have too many people on the court, what are we going to do with all this talent.”
“We went to the Final Four (in 2019) with eight people and now we have 13. That’s a big difference.”
Graves said he wasn’t surprised by his squad’s performance against Seattle, because they’re very capable.
“This is a good group to go a long way,” he said.
Also Saturday, the new-look Beavers dismantled Montana Western, 88-54. Taylor Jones lead five from Corvallis in double figures, with 24 points.
Following a tough year of injuries and personal tragedies, Oregon State returns just two starters. They, along with Stanford and UCLA, were supposed to play two games over the four-day stretch that didn’t include Thanksgiving day. But in each case, their opponents had COVID concerns or testing issues and had to postpone or cancel the match up. The Cardinal and the Beavers both scheduled new games for tomorrow.
The Wildcats, who had a hard time finding opponents to play, tipped off their season today. After struggling to score and defend in the first half, they picked up the pace in the last two quarters to down Northern Arizona, 76-63. Cate Reese lead the way for Arizona with 21 points and 11 rebounds, and Aari McDonald added 18 points and eight assists.
Coach Adia Barnes said her squad was rusty because they hadn’t played a game in 266 days.
“We were very flat, but I’m proud we got the jitters out,” she said. “I felt like we were inconsistent with our defense and we weren’t communicating well. We didn’t shoot the ball well, and we looked gassed.”
Barnes said she challenged them at halftime to step up their game, and they did. She said what was challenging for her was her larger roster size, as transfers and signees have found their way to the rising program.
“I played a lot of different combinations because we have a lot more people,” she said. “Most games we won’t play 12. It’s hard to get consistency and rhythm going deep into the bench.”
On the non-ranked Pac-12 side, Arizona State and Colorado each picked up two wins, Washington and USC one a piece, and Cal lost twice. Utah and Washington State have not yet played.
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.