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Should The NCAA Be Playing Hoops Right Now?

(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

To play or not to play?

That is the question currently facing every sports league, but especially college basketball, as the NCAA works feverishly to hold the 2020-2021 season together amidst spiralling game postponements and cancellations caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Not only are individual games at risk, but the pool of available teams continues to shrink as programs decide to cancel their seasons entirely. To date, three Power Five women’s teams (Duke, UVA and Vanderbilt) have withdrawn, joining SMU as well as the Ivy League schools who cancelled the current winter sports season in November, eliminating an entire conference from NCAA competition.

As the pieces of this jigsaw puzzle season rapidly re-arrange themselves and outright disappear, teams find themselves having played only half as many games compared to this time last year. Game preparation has also become a struggle as teams face last minute match-up and travel changes in order to comply with COVID-19 protocols.

The domino effects from COVID have impacted schools nationwide, forcing NC State, Villanova, Providence, UConn, and many others to go on pause until conditions have been cleared for safe play.

On January 14, #23 ranked Syracuse — who had been on pause for weeks — had to postpone its matchup against Georgia Tech, its fourth conference game in a row, due to exposure. The team returned to play on Sunday, January 17, defeating the University of Miami, before topping North Carolina on Tuesday, a game that was originally slated for December 31, 2020.

Baylor University, the 2019 and therefore still-defending NCAA champions, resumed play on Saturday, January 15 after being on pause since January 5, with coach Kim Mulkey returning to the court after contracting COVID over the holidays. The Lady Bear’ pause forced them to cancel their hotly anticipated game against then-No. 4 UConn on January 7 and postpone matchups against Kansas State and Kansas.

Stanford, meanwhile, the No. 1 team in the country until this past weekend, has essentially been on the road since late November due to Santa Clara county restrictions.

As teams across the country experience the reality of playing through a pandemic, in a season which started late, and which has continually been re-routed as it stumbles through the winter, many are beginning to wonder whether it’s worth it.

Mulkey didn’t hold back when asked how she felt about playing the season, stating, “The NCAA has to have the almighty dollar from the men’s tournament. The almighty dollar is more important than the health and welfare of me, the players or anybody else.”

UConn coach Geno Auriemma responded to Mulkey’s comments, saying, “I don’t know that anything that she said was completely off the charts wrong. However, having said that… the almighty dollar has a lot to do with what we are doing. And without the men’s NCAA tournament, there’s a lot of things that happen in the NCAA that don’t happen.”

The two coaches are circling on an undeniable truth: the NCAA was financially unprepared to lose the revenue it would have amassed from the 2020 tournament, and as professional leagues have successfully built bubbles in order to host modified seasons and tournaments, it’s safe to assume that the NCAA feels it can (and must) accomplish a similar feat for the tournament this year.

Ethically speaking, asking un-paid athletes to play out a season as cases of COVID-19 spike is dubious, to say the least. Players are being asked to risk their own health while also eliminating all contact with anyone outside of their teams. Student athletes have never been paid for their work; now they can’t even see their families.

Aureimma, for his part, said he believes the vast majority of athletes would prefer to play. Whether that’s true or not, it’s clear that many players view this season, truncated as it may be, as an opportunity to join their WNBA counterparts in speaking out against racial injustice in the US. The calendar may be uncertain, but these players know they still have a platform they can use to advocate for change.

Before the first game of the 2020-21 season, the South Carolina Gamecocks issued a statement via Twitter addressing how they planned to protest the national anthem. In it, they shared their season’s theme of “what matters,” expressing their unconditional support for one another, the conversations they have had as a unit, and the decision for the majority of the team to sit for the anthem in order to “shine a light on the need for racial equality, social justice and ending systemic racism in our country.”

Tennessee joined South Carolina in protest with all but one of the Lady Vols kneeling during the anthem before their first conference game, which fell just after the deadly riot and attack on the Capitol in Washington D.C. on January 6. The team has also worn black shooting shirts during their warm ups this season.

Lady Vols senior Rennia Davis stated that kneeling was “a decision we made in the moment,” adding “with everything going on, especially recently in Washington, that’s what we saw fit to do. The people on the team who saw fit to support that, they did. And the ones who didn’t, they supported us in a different way.”

It’s not just players speaking out. Coaches, too, are using their platforms to condemn racial injustice and support their teams. Asked about her activity on social media, where she has routinely responded to both current events and various followers, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley told The Athletic, “It’s not just about X’ing and O’ing. It’s about teaching, growing, learning and being that example for our players, because we can’t have sports blinders on.”

She continued, “there’s a world going on outside of us that we play a part in — whether or not people want us to shut up and dribble. There’s a world out there that, between these dribbles, things are happening that impact us.”

Of course, wanting to use their visibility to advocate for change hasn’t spared teams from dealing with COVID. Ahead of their home opener against East Tennessee State University in December, Vanderbilt announced via social media that the team would stay in the locker room during the anthem this season “to mourn and commemorate the racial injustices that have been taking place in the United States.”

This week, Vanderbilt announced that they would stop playing their season, after both COVID and injuries depleted their roster, which was already thin due to pre-season opt-outs.

As of now, March Madness is still a go, with the NCAA confirming this week that it expects to stage the entire tournament in San Antonio. The NCAA has waived the .500 rule, which typically requires schools to have a winning record in order to qualify for an at-large selection. Schools will be required to have played 13 games against other DI schools to qualify for team selection, however, the NCAA has also announced that it will accept eligibility waiver requests from schools which cannot meet this threshold.

At this point, with most teams having played somewhere between seven (UConn) and twelve (Louisville) games, the NCAA’s strategy seems to be to just get to San Antonio and hope for the best.

There will be no shortage of lessons learned when the NCAA looks back on this time, and while the fate of March Madness and the remainder of the 2020-21 season is still prey to an uncontrolled pandemic, one thing is certain: athletes understand the power of their platform. They haven’t let the virus overshadow the racial and political reckoning facing the United States. And whether or not they should be playing, the fact is a new precedent has been set, one that is certain to outlast the pandemic.

Rose Lavelle hoping to return to play ‘in the next couple of weeks’

uswnt midfielder rose lavalle trains on a soccer field in florida
When healthy, Rose Lavelle is a trusted asset in the USWNT's midfield. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Rose Lavelle is hoping to return to the field soon. 

The 28-year-old midfielder has been sidelined with a lower leg injury since the Gold Cup in early march. Since then, she has yet to play for new club Gotham FC in the NWSL. She also missed a potential USWNT appearance at the SheBelieves Cup in April, where senior team newcomer Jaedyn Shaw saw success assuming Lavelle's role in the attacking midfield. 

At the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee media showcase on Monday, Lavelle told reporters that she’s doing well and hopes to be back soon.

"I’m doing good — I’m hoping I’ll be back in the next couple weeks," Lavelle said. "It’s frustrating to start the year off with an injury, just because I feel like you come off preseason and you’re revving to go, so it’s so annoying."

Lavelle is still looking to compete for one of just 18 Olympic roster spots. When healthy, she ranks as one of the national team’s most trusted assets, but considering this most recent injury, her health is an obvious concern. Faced with an onslaught of experienced competitors and young talent, incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes will have some big decisions to make when selecting the Paris-bound squad — a reality Lavelle seems to be taking in stride as she works to regain full fitness.

"We have so many special players, we have so much depth, and so many different weapons to utilize on and off the bench," Lavelle said. "Unfortunately that means really good players are going to get left off, too. And I think for all of us, it’s just about being ready for whatever role is given to us, embracing that, and looking to put it into a collective picture so that we can go into the Olympics ready to go."

Kate Paye tapped to take VanDerveer’s place at Stanford

new stanford head coach kate paye spins a basketball on the court
Stanford associate head coach Kate Paye has officially been promoted to head women's basketball coach. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Stanford has found its replacement for legendary head women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer in associate head coach Kate Paye.

The Cardinal confirmed the hiring on Tuesday via a press release. Paye was largely expected to replace the longtime head coach, as the college mentioned they were still negotiating Paye's contract when they announced VanDerveer's retirement.

In Tuesday's statement, Paye reported that she was "humbled" to have been tapped to lead the women’s program.

"Stanford University has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember and I am humbled to have the opportunity to lead its women’s basketball program," Paye said. "I’d first like to thank Tara, who has played such a pivotal role in my career for her friendship and guidance. It’s not what she’s done, but how she’s done it, that has had such a profound impact upon me."

A Woodside, California native, Paye played under VanDerveer from 1992 to 1995, taking home a national title her freshman year. After graduation, Paye briefly joined San Diego State as an assistant coach before making her professional debut with the ABL's Seattle Reign in 1996. After finishing her playing career with the WNBA's Seattle Storm, she joined the team’s coaching staff in 2007 and has been with the organization ever since, picking up another national title win — this time as associate head coach — in 2021. Paye's brother John played quarterback for Stanford from 1983 to 1986, while also serving as a point guard on the basketball team.

In her own response, VanDerveer said that she was "grateful" that Stanford picked Paye to follow in her stead. Last week, the decorated coach stated that this year would be her last after 38 seasons at the helm and three national titles under her belt.

"She has long been ready for this opportunity and is the perfect leader for Stanford at this time of immense change in college athletics," VanDerveer noted. "Kate was the choice for this job and I am confident she will achieve great success as head coach."

After a record-breaking Draft Night, WNBA roster cuts loom

2023 WNBA no. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston playing for the indiana fever
Despite going No. 1 overall in the 2023 WNBA Draft, Aliyah Boston had to fight hard to make it onto Indiana's roster. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The 2024 WNBA Draft has officially concluded, leaving the newly minted rookie class facing a tough road ahead.

Only 144 roster slots are available throughout the league’s 12 teams, the reason why the players are sometimes referred to as the “144.” And Monday’s draft picks are set to join a large group of established players competing for those same roster spots, from seasoned veterans to young athletes determined to prove their value on the court.

Last year, just 15 of the league’s 36 draftees made it onto their drafting team's opening-day squad.

In reality, there are oftentimes fewer than 144 spots available, as not every team maxes out their roster. Per the league's CBA, each team roster must maintain a minimum standard of 11 players, but those lists can include players out with injuries or on other forms of leave. Players can also be assigned to short-term hardship contracts, something waived players must be prepared for at any point during the season.

Earlier this week, Laeticia Amihere — a 2022 national champion with South Carolina who currently plays for the Atlanta Dream — took to TikTok to provide some insight into the WNBA training camp process. 

"You can either get drafted on Draft Night, or you can get signed by a team," she said. "Once that happens, you go to training camp literally like two weeks later... Basically everybody's got to try out. There's 12 roster spots, and there's like 18 people at the at the trial."

@laeticiaamihere Replying to @dantavius.washington #wnba #draft ♬ original sound - Laeticia Amihere

Amihere also had an important point to make: Getting cut does not signify a player’s abilities. 

"If you get cut after training camp, that does not mean you're not good," she said. "That does not mean that player sucks, don't stop supporting that player. Literally, there's so many reasons somebody can get cut."

"If you guys look at the best players in the league, most of them have bounced around teams," she added. "And I promise you it is not a bad thing, it's just how the league is."

Things, however gradually, are changing. With Golden State's WNBA team scheduled to launch in time for the 2025 season, league expansion is just around the corner. On Monday, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that the league is aiming to grow to 16 teams by 2028. But by then, it might be too little too late for the generation of talent emerging from an increasingly competitive NCAA system.

WNBA draft shatters records with 2.45 million viewers

wide shot of BAM during the 2024 WNBA Draft
It wasn't just attendees that were glued to the on-stage action at the 2024 WNBA Draft. (Photo by Melanie Fidler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Monday night’s WNBA draft added to the nationwide uptick in record-breaking women's sports viewership, pulling in 2.45 million viewers throughout the nearly two-hour broadcast and peaking at 3.09 million, according to an ESPN release. 

That number shatters the previous draft viewership record — 601,000 in 2004 — which was fueled primarily by then-No. 1 pick Diana Taurasi entering the league after UConn's historic three-peat March Madness performance.  

The 2023 WNBA draft drew 572,000 viewers, the most for any televised WNBA event since 2.74 million tuned in to NBC for a Memorial Day matchup between the New York Liberty and Houston Comets back in 2000.

While many came to watch Caitlin Clark get drafted No. 1 overall, it’s important to note that viewership didn’t take a massive dip after the superstar shooter left the stage. The numbers show that a bulk of the audience stuck around to watch the remainder of the show, making 2024's event not just the most-viewed WNBA draft in history, but also the most-viewed WNBA program to ever air on ESPN platforms.

Draft Day's popularity is yet another sign indicating an expected rise in WNBA regular season viewership. Clark and Iowa's NCAA tournament showdown with the Chicago Sky-bound Kamilla Cardoso's South Carolina side drew a record 18.7 million to ABC's Sunday afternoon broadcast. Banking on this trend, 36 of Indiana's upcoming 40 games are set to be shown on national television. In-person ticket sales are also soaring, leading the defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces to re-home their matchup with the Fever to a venue that can accommodate some 6,000 more fans.

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