We have arrived at the unofficial beginning of phase two of the 2021-22 women's college basketball season. January always marks the beginning of conference play, and a sense of urgency begins to set in. Yes, a few leagues scattered some games in November and December, but from here, the schedule consists almost exclusively of conference games. A team can survive a couple of bad weekends around Thanksgiving. But a poor two-week stretch in mid-January or early February might doom a team's optimal seeding or even a shot at the NCAA tournament.
The college basketball calendar is predictable in that way. Teams, conferences and fans depend on it, and coaches plan for it. But COVID-19 continues to bring uncertainty, and the rest of the season could look a lot like last year. So whatever most programs used as the blueprint in 2021, let's hope they saved for 2022.
With the omicron variant causing a rise in positive tests across the country, games are getting canceled or postponed at a concerning rate. Fortunately, most conferences recently elected to amend their policies on games impacted by COVID-19, and the plan is to reschedule rather than assign forfeits for league competition. That good news, however, is tempered by the fact that the clock is ticking. Each postponement means one fewer day to complete a full schedule.
The NCAA requires that each team plays 25 games to be eligible for the tournament. Last year that number was amended to 13 to account for a truncated season. As of now, there is no word that any change will be made for 2021-22. But it's worth keeping an eye on because teams that had to cancel multiple nonconference games will need to play nearly all their conference schedule to reach 25.
At this point, no teams are projected to be in jeopardy, but monitoring how many games continue to get pushed back will be important. UConn, for example, has played just nine games, and No. 4 Arizona, No. 21 Kentucky and No. 22 Iowa have each played 10.
The challenge to the league offices to make all this rescheduling work is massive and, like anything with the virus, nothing is guaranteed. Neither, of course, is anything that happens on the court. So many questions still exist in a season that has exhibited a few surprises and another increase in competitive parity. We look at a few of the biggest.
Which league race will have the most ripple effect across women's basketball
The Big Ten is top heavy, but the top is very good. Depending on how a champion is crowned, the race to the title could also mean a No. 1 seed. Indiana, Maryland and Michigan are all top-10-caliber teams that did their share of impressive things in the nonconference season. Six of the 12 teams have already established themselves as strong NCAA tournament contenders, and Northwestern is hovering around the bubble. While the Hoosiers, Terps and Wolverines make the race so intriguing, Iowa, Ohio State and Nebraska could provide the kind of quality wins that pump up a résumé for a team fighting for a No. 1 seed. At least two spots on the No. 1 line seem wide open.
If, for example, Indiana emerges as the champion with just one or two losses, the Hoosiers would be in good position to claim a top seed. The Hoosiers are the league front-runner after their overtime win against the Terrapins on Sunday and an earlier victory over Ohio State. However, Maryland still has another crack at Indiana, plus two games against Michigan and the Buckeyes. The Wolverines also play Iowa twice, in addition to a home game against the Hoosiers at the end of the month.
If no favorite emerges and several teams lose to one another, the Big Ten might not get a No. 1 seed but will have a chance to dominate lines 2, 3 and 4.
Honorable mention in this category should go to the Big 12. Baylor's loss Sunday at Kansas State indicated that the Bears' long-time conference dominance has faded. Texas and Oklahoma are much better than expected, and Iowa State is as rock solid as ever. There haven't been multiple teams in the Big 12 race in a long time.
Which teams most need the fresh start that conference play brings?
For two months, injuries decimated Oregon's rotation. In the past two weeks, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc with Oregon's schedule. On Sunday, the Ducks played their first game since Dec. 18, albeit against Division II Carroll, but it was a way to get some game action in before getting a delayed start to the Pac-12 season. The result, a 31-point win, isn't at all notable -- it doesn't count toward NCAA tournament consideration -- but which players helped produce that result is.
For the first time this season, Te-Hina Paopao, Endyia Rogers and Nyara Sabally were on the court together. Sunday marked just the second game for Rogers (hand injury). Paopao has missed all but three minutes of the season because of a knee injury. Rogers, a transfer from USC, and Paopao, a Pac-12 all-freshmen team selection last season, were expected to be Oregon's starting backcourt.
Sabally was expected to pair with Sedona Prince to form a dynamic one-two post presence. Instead, she missed seven of the Ducks' first nine games because of a knee injury. Oregon managed to go 6-4 and maintained a top-20 NET rating. That keeps the Ducks alive in the NCAA tournament race, and the roster becomes whole just in time for Pac-12 play. They are hitting the reset button into the new year harder than any team in the country. The four losses will be a distant memory, and not that heavily weighed by the committee, if a healthy Oregon competes for a Pac-12 championship as was the outlook in the preseason.
Which teams benefited the most from nonconference play?
Which teams exceeded expectations? Though neither played a schedule anywhere near as competitive as South Carolina's, North Carolina and Nebraska emerged from the first two months far better than most expected. Thanks to high-scoring offenses, the Tar Heels and Cornhuskers went a combined 21-0 in nonconference play, and both are now in the top 10 of the NET.
Schedules aside, that puts the Tar Heels and Cornhuskers -- neither of which were in the top five of the ACC or Big Ten preseason polls -- in prime NCAA tournament position. A pair of transfers have led the way for both. Jaz Shelley, who joined Nebraska after a year at Oregon, is the Cornhuskers' leading scorer (13.8 PPG). Princeton transfer and graduate student Carlie Littlefield tops North Carolina in assists and has helped elevate the play of the talented sophomore trio of Deja Kelly, Alyssa Ustby and Kennedy Todd-Williams.
How will COVID-19 continue to impact women's college basketball?
Per the Associated Press, at least 260 Division I women's basketball games this season have been canceled or postponed through Sunday because of the coronavirus, the majority of those coming after mid-December.
The bottom line is programs will have to be nimble both in scheduling and with their personnel.
South Carolina and Mississippi State decided with 24 hours' notice to move their game from Feb. 6 to Sunday because both of their respective opponents, Ole Miss and Kentucky, couldn't play because of COVID-19 issues. The SEC saw an opportunity to get a game in and provide scheduling flexibility later in the season. These kinds of moves can really help in the big picture but also create some real-time adjustments in planning and scouting. Just like last year, teams will have to adjust.
There also have been numerous occasions when teams have played without major parts of their roster due to COVID-19. Sometimes that leaves teams at a competitive disadvantage. Yet it is simply too early to tell how that will impact committee decision-making. Each situation must be looked at on a case-by-case basis.
But just like last year, with COVID-19 complications so widespread and so many teams impacted differently by personnel losses, the playing field generally remains equal. For instance, it's less than ideal that West Virginia had to play Iowa State on Sunday without two of its best players, but the Mountaineers might gain an advantage later in the season from another opponent's roster problems. And let's not forget that Missouri, with just eight available players and without its best player, Aijha Blackwell, beat No. 1 ranked South Carolina.