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Michelle Smith Women's Basketball Notebook: 2020 Pac-12 Virtual Media Day

Nov 18, 2020

By Michelle Smith

Tuesday - when the Pac-12 hosted a series of roundtables for its 2020 Virtual Media Day - felt like normal. Normal, of course, being a relative term. Pac-12 women’s basketball coaches and players talking about games and aspirations. Talking about veteran talent and new contributors. Talking about a season that definitely won’t be taken for granted.

“We talk a lot about gratitude,” said Oregon State coach Scott Rueck. “It’s a blessing to be reminded to maintain a proper perspective.”

This 2020-21 season will look like few others before it, and hopefully after it. A short, close-to-home preseason slate of games, followed by a 22-game conference schedule that may well be played in empty arenas, followed by a Pac-12 Tournament in Vegas, followed by a postseason whose format and details still haven’t taken shape. And that’s if everything goes smoothly.

In fact, with just days left before the delayed start of the season, there are some teams for whom a lot hasn’t yet taken shape.

USC’s team hasn’t been able to practice for two weeks since a player tested positive for COVID-19. That followed an offseason of limited workouts. Practice starts again on Wednesday.

“How that’s going to translate into the first game, I don’t know,” said USC coach Mark Trakh. “We might just roll the ball out and see what happens. It’s just something you have to deal with. Everything is fluid. We just have to be ready to change on a dime and be positive.”

UCLA, meanwhile, is one of a handful of teams practicing short-handed, waiting for a pair of Australian recruits, Gemma Potter and Izzy Anstey, to arrive. They are unable to travel to the United States at this time and are in the middle of a lawsuit to try to win the right to come to Los Angeles and join their team. The Bruins are down to seven or eight players at the moment.

Washington coach Jody Wynn can sympathize. She is also operating with a limited roster because of injuries, a player who opted out for the season and players who are still healing from last year’s injuries.

But the chance to play, to put on uniforms and compete, is the gift here, no matter the package it gets wrapped in.

“I feel like we are in a little bubble right now,” said Washington State coach Kamie Ethridge. “We are so close to our teams, and it feels great to be in the gym. No, we can’t control whether someone gets sick or something happens...but the reality is that this is where we are, we have to have a healthy respect for what’s going on out there and don’t take it for granted.”

Fresh starts

Oregon was expected to compete for a national championship last spring before the NCAA Tournament was cancelled because of the pandemic. Eight months later, the Ducks are in a near complete remodel. Kelly Graves’ team includes nine new players, including seven freshmen. Oregon has eight players over 6-foot-2, and the top freshman class in the country as well as transfer Sedona Prince, the 6-foot-7 transfer from Texas and Nyara Sabally, the sister of star Satou Sabally, who has missed the last two seasons with injuries.

“It’s an entirely new team with a new identity,” said senior wing Erin Boley, the only returning starter. “This is a big change from last year to this year for the returners. But we have an amazing class and amazing transfers. Sedona and Nyara haven’t played, but they’ve been here. We have a great combination of players. It’s a big shift from last year, but we are coming back with a really strong team.”

Graves said Wednesday that he is doing a lot of teaching.

“We are playing a lot more five-on-five. We don’t have a lot of scrimmages or exhibitions, or preseason games and you never know when something is going to get shut down, so we want to have a baseline in,” Graves said. “I’m teaching a lot more early.”

In Tempe, Arizona State head coach Charli Turner Thorne said this is the youngest team she has ever coached, with only one senior on the roster and six freshmen, five of whom will be available this season.

“Half of our team is new,” Turner Thorne said. “We had a top five recruiting class that we are really excited about.” That class includes guard Jaddan Simmons from Wisconsin and 6-3 forward Katelyn Levings, from Oklahoma, both of whom are expected to make an early impact on a lineup that returns just one starter from last season.

Cal, under second-year head coach Charmin Smith, will again field one of the league’s youngest teams with six freshmen ranked as one of the top 10 recruiting classes in the country.

Evelien Lutje Schipholt, the sophomore forward from the Netherlands, said the young Bears are going to need to learn resilience.

“Nothing can prepare you for the Pac-12, it’s always hard, more physical than you expect,” she said. “I would tell them to keep working hard. That’s the one thing you can always control. And that it’s never too late to come back. That’s the mindset we need to keep having.”

Aari’s comeback

Arizona’s Aari McDonald ended last season with a 34-point game against Oregon in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals and a marriage proposal. When the Wildcats lost their chance to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005, McDonald made a decision that she would come back from her final collegiate season.

She begins as the preseason pick for Pac-12 Player of the Year and a preseason All-American by the Associated Press. She will be a candidate for National Player of the Year.

And she’s got big goals.

“I would love to see our team win a Pac-12 championship and the tournament and go to the NCAA Tournament,” McDonald said.

That is going to take some adjustments on her part, she said.

“I need to be a more vocal leader and I’m already trying to do that,” McDonald said. “I will do what it takes for my team to have a successful season.”

Scheduling challenges

Teams through the conference will be able to schedule three non-conference games in addition to the 22-game conference schedule, not a lot of time to get ready for the rigors of the nation’s toughest conference.

But even scheduling those games has been a challenge for some. Arizona coach Adia Barnes, for example, took to Twitter earlier this week to see if she could get a couple of games for her team just days before the season starts. Two of her team’s scheduled opponents dropped out last week.

“It’s challenging navigating different conference rules and travel bans and finding games,” Barnes said. “As a coach, to have to resort to Twitter to find games, it’s kind of comical, but it’s also stressful, because I have no idea who we are going to play. But those are the times we are in.”

Taking action

Many Pac-12 teams, coaches and players responded with reflection and action to the social justice movements and protests that dominated the summer and the months since.

Cal coach Charmin Smith relayed her own story of civic engagement. She was coaching at Stanford, her alma mater, as an assistant under Tara VanDerveer back in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Smith felt anger, frustration and hurt at the lack of care for the deeply impacted Black community in the aftermath of the disaster.

“There was a lot of talk about how it was handled and how our nation prepared and how we didn’t take care of people,” Smith said. “I was talking to Tara about how frustrated I was and she said ‘Ok, Charmin, what do you want to do about it?’”

Smith started the Katrina Assist Pledge and got then-rival Cal to join in to raise money for New Orleans residents.

“The lesson I learned was that it’s not enough to complain and talk, talk, talk without any action,” Smith said. “I am proud of my team that after the murder of George Floyd, as they expressed a lot of frustration and anger and fear, and I said to them, ‘What do you want to do?’ that they took action.”

Sophomore guard Cailyn Crocker and junior guard Sierra Richey worked to found the racial justice council for Cal athletes. Players participated in the Go Bears, Go Vote initiative.

“There are so many things our student athletes stepped up and started and they are using their platform and their voice. It’s important to think what you can do and not just what you are going to say.”

Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-12.com. She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, San Francisco Chronicle, The Athletic and AOL Fanhouse. She was has won several awards, including the WBCA's Mel Greenberg Media Award, presented annually to a member of the media who has best displayed commitment to advancing the role of the media in women's basketball. For previous Michelle Smith features on pac-12.com, visit the archives page.