Lack of marquee games to make NCAA tourney selection harder

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

That hasn't happened this year as the Huskies haven't played a team outside the Big East who is ranked 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 the virus.

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

The Huskies aren't alone with games getting wiped out as 10 of the current members of the AP women's basketball poll haven't played a non-conference ranked opponent yet this season, including the five Pac-12 teams who are in the Top 25.

Five more have only played one ranked opponent who isn't in their conference. The only non-conference matchup between top 10 teams this season was an early-season contest between then-No. 1 South Carolina and eight-ranked N.C. 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 non-conference opponent.

The lack of marquee non-conference 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 with the AP. “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 for the sport that so many great 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 admitted it may be harder to select 64 teams this year with less data from non-conference 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 non-conference 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.”

With all the games that have been postponed or cancelled so far there is some fear that teams may not even 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 towards 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.”

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More AP women’s basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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