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Women's hoops set to begin: flexibility key in COVID times

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Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

FILE - In this Friday, March 8, 2019, file photo, Louisville head coach Jeff Walz directs his team against Clemson during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Atlantic Coast Conference women's tournament in Greensboro, N.C. Knowing that cancellations and postponements of games would be the norm this season amid the coronavirus pandemic, Walz started a text chain with a dozen coaches so that they could schedule games at the last minute when cancellations happened. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)

Eight months after women's college basketball was stopped because of the coronavirus, the sport is back, with the new season tipping off Wednesday.

This year, getting to the Final Four, which is slated to be played in San Antonio, might not be purely about having the most talented team. It also could very well hinge on who has the least disruptions because of the coronavirus.

Flexibility, fluidity and adaptability are three words that every coach in the country has adopted this year as team mantras.

Before games even started, dozens of teams have had to pause their practices because of positive COVID-19 tests. With a positive result comes an NCAA suggested 14-day quarantine period for entire programs.

No. 3 UConn saw its first four games wiped out Monday when the Huskies had a positive result by someone in the program. Coach Geno Auriemma said it wasn't a player or coach. It didn't matter. The team is not allowed to practice for two weeks.

That eliminated early season showdowns with No. 5 Louisville and potentially sixth-ranked Mississippi State.

“Everybody is going to be in this scenario at some point,” Auriemma said. “Either already has been, is, or will be. You can just pretty much predict that.”

Before the season started, 20 games that were scheduled to be played on Wednesday were either canceled or postponed, including one for Louisville. Cardinals coach Jeff Walz didn't let that stop him from getting a game. Knowing that this would be the norm this season, Walz started a text chain with a dozen coaches so that they could schedule games at the last minute when cancellations happened.

Walz also went to social media. The result ended up being a game at Southeast Missouri State on Wednesday.

“You just have to adapt and be flexible,” Walz said. “We know it's going to be pretty common this year to have games postponed late, so why not figure out a way to pick up a game a different way.”

Walz's texting group has now grown to 25 members and will keep getting bigger.

South Carolina was the early favorite, earning the first No. 1 preseason ranking in school history. Dawn Staley's squad returns many talented players from last season's team that lost just one game.

While the NCAA announced that the entire men's basketball tournament will be played at single site this year to help avoid potential problems with COVID-19, the women haven't decided yet what they want to do. If they do end up playing their NCAA Tournament games in a single city, San Antonio would be the leading candidate because it had been awarded the Final Four.

Here are a few other things to look forward to this season:

CHASING PAT: Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer and Auriemma should both pass Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt's record win total of 1,098. VanDerveer sits four victories behind the Tennessee great, while Auriemma is seven away. Predicting when either will get there is difficult because of games potentially being lost due to the virus.

“In a normal year, you’d have a better answer for it, with what’s going on right now, makes you appreciate each game,” said VanDerveer's whose team is No. 2 in the preseason poll. “I don’t know what the number is; I purposely don’t think about it. I know it’s out there, reminds me what an incredible opportunity I have to work with the players I’ve worked with and the teams I have. It makes me appreciate it a little bit more.”

NEW FACES: With so many stars lost to graduation, including four members of The Associated Press All-America first team from last spring, new players will have a chance to step into the spotlight. Kentucky's Rhyne Howard — the lone returner from the All-America team — is poised to continue breaking more records for the Wildcats. She was the nation's second-leading scorer last season. She was joined on this year's preseason All-America team by South Carolina's Aliyah Boston, Louisville's Dana Evans, Arizona's Aari McDonald and UCLA's Michaela Onyenwere.

WELCOME BACK: There were many new coaching hires this past offseason, two though could have major impacts. Kara Lawson and Niele Ivey left NBA assistant coaching positions to take over at Duke and Notre Dame, respectively. It is Lawson's first college coaching position, while Ivey returns to her alma mater, where she was a longtime assistant before leaving for the NBA.

Lawson said she had always wanted to coach at Duke if the opportunity presented itself.

“I knew that if it ever came open, I’d try and put my best foot forward and try to secure the position. That’s how highly I thought of the institution and the job,” she said when she was hired. “I had no idea it would happen a year after I went to Boston. It wasn’t in the plans so to speak.”

HALF A CENTURY: Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer will be entering her 50th season as a college coach, including the last 26th at Rutgers. The Hall of Famer will be the first NCAA women’s basketball coach to coach 50 seasons and just the fourth men’s or women’s basketball coach in any NCAA division to reach that milestone. She joins Phog Allen (50 seasons , also including time at Baker, Central Missouri and Haskell from 1906-56 besides being at Kansas), Jim Smith (51 seasons at Division III Saint John’s-Minn. from 1965-2015) and Herb Magee, who is beginning his 54th season on the sidelines at Division II Jefferson (formerly Philadelphia Textile), where he took over in 1967-68.


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