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Lack of marquee games to make NCAA tourney selection harder

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Press Conference

Mar 12, 2020; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; View of a rack of basketballs on the court after the announcement the SEC Conference Tournament was cancelled at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

Geno Auriemma is used to having marquee nonconference matchups to test his UConn Huskies during the regular season.

That hasn’t happened this season, as the Huskies haven’t played a ranked team outside the Big East Conference because of the coronavirus pandemic. UConn had games scheduled early on against No. 2 Louisville and then-No. 6 Mississippi State, but those were wiped out when the Huskies were on pause because of COVID-19 issues.

A game against Baylor was called off earlier this month when Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey tested positive for the coronavirus. UConn has two more chances to play nonconference ranked teams, with Tennessee and South Carolina on the schedule.

The Huskies aren’t alone having games wiped out: 10 of the current members of the AP women’s college basketball poll haven’t played a nonconference ranked opponent yet this season, including the five Pac-12 teams in the Top 25.

Five more have played only one ranked opponent that isn’t in their conference. The only nonconference matchup between top 10 teams this season was an early-season contest between then-No. 1 South Carolina and eight-ranked North Carolina State. The Wolfpack pulled off the upset. Conversely on the men’s side, a majority of the current Top 25 have played at least one ranked nonconference opponent.

The lack of marquee nonconference matchups could cause the NCAA women’s basketball selection committee some agita when trying to figure out who deserves to be in the NCAA Tournament and where teams should be seeded.

“It’s not going to be apples to apples this year,” selection committee chairwoman Nina King said in a phone interview. “It’s certainly a challenge. ... The thing about selecting teams is it isn’t one piece of criteria we look at. It’s a lot of different things. One isn’t more weighed than another. We’ll have lively discussions.”

Longtime ESPN and CBS analyst Deb Antonelli was sad that so many women’s basketball games have been canceled or postponed.

“It’s disappointing we can’t showcase the game at the highest level because our game has prospered and grown in so many ways,” she said. “The so-called eye test is really going to put additional pressure on the committee because whether you like the numbers or metrics, having the whole tournament in San Antonio removes geography, now they can’t hide behind the geography.”

King acknowledged it may be harder to select 64 teams this year with less data from nonconference matchups, but she has faith the committee will get it done.

“We will have a true S-curve this year, but I really haven’t thought that far ahead yet,” she said. “I’m focused as my committee colleagues are on watching teams and seeing how we will do selections this year.

Auriemma joked that with the cancellations of several marquee nonconference matchups nationwide, the committee might have to have to consider teams’ reputations even more than usual when making a bracket.

“You know the movie `Casablanca’ ... where they go, `Round up the usual suspects?”’ Auriemma said. “I think that’s what’s gonna happen. When it all breaks down, just round up the usual suspects.”

Given all the games that have been postponed or canceled so far, there is some fear that teams may not reach the 13-game minimum. UConn has played only seven games and its next two were postponed.

Teams can’t start submitting waivers until Feb. 26 to the NCAA petitioning to be allowed to play in the tournament if they don’t meet the minimum standard. After the deadline, waivers would only be considered if a conference tournament was canceled and that would have been a team’s 13th game. Teams also can only count one of their tournament games toward the 13.

“It’s unprecedented and there’s no handbook for this one either. We’ll work through,” King said. “COVID is COVID and we don’t want to penalize a team for the uncontrollable.”