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A season re-envisioned: Breaking down the creation of Duke women’s basketball's 2020-21 schedule

Kara Lawson's first few months in Durham have certainly been full of challenges, including building a schedule during a pandemic.
Kara Lawson's first few months in Durham have certainly been full of challenges, including building a schedule during a pandemic.

The NCAA began talks back in April to discuss normal-looking fall and winter sports seasons to end 2020, assuming the downward trend in COVID-19 cases was there to stay. However, now we are here in December with our fingers crossed that the season can happen at all.

This season is already a logistical nightmare when it comes to avoiding the spread of COVID-19. Every school has different protocols, though all are bound by NCAA guidelines for testing student-athletes and deciding whether or not to hold a game when there is heightened risk of an outbreak. The governing body also released guidelines for how many games teams need to complete in order to remain eligible for championship contention. For women’s basketball, teams must compete in around 24 games—including 13 against Division I opponents beginning Nov. 25. This new information was not made public until mid-September, about the same time most schools were completing their schedules in any other year. 

Duke women's basketball's schedule was finally released Nov. 11. The sprint to organize a season was chaotic for many reasons, but here’s how the the Blue Devils' 2020 slate breaks down.

The nonconference schedule

Ordinarily, the nonconference portion of the season is a tune-up for conference play and often includes a small tournament and multiple trips around the country. Last season, Duke squared off against UNLV, Texas A&M and Nebraska on the road, though cross-country trips are a clear no-go this year. The nonconference schedule then comes down to whoever the school reaches out to. According to Director of Basketball Operations Kate Senger, the four nonconference games on this year’s docket were on Duke’s preliminary schedule, so the program just had to arrange new dates following the delay to the start of the season. 

“As schedules fell apart and then were revitalized, there was intent to schedule games against schools in our region and were in driving distance,” Senger wrote to the Chronicle. 

Thus, for the four schools Duke has played or will play in the early weeks of its season—Longwood, Eastern Carolina, Western Carolina and UNC Wilmington—Cameron Indoor Stadium is within a few hours driving distance, which has become a priority for reducing COVID-19 exposure risk. 

Another place for concern after the schedule was laid out is the lingering question of “what happens if a game is postponed due to COVID-19?” The answer—as made evident by the men’s basketball team following the announcement that its season-opener against Gardner-Webb was postponed—is that nonconference games cannot easily be rescheduled.

The ACC schedule

Over the last three seasons, though for very different reasons, the ACC has expanded the conference schedule from 16 to 18 to 20 games. This latest expansion was done to hold as much of the season as possible within a self-contained and self-governed zone made up of the 15 ACC schools. 

In terms of scheduling, the conference divided teams into three geographically-based “regions” to determine the home-away matchups. Duke’s unnamed region is composed of five mid-Atlantic schools: Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State, Virginia and Virginia Tech. Each ACC team plays its regional partners twice, once at home and once on the road, in addition to five home and five away games against the other 10 teams. 

But that leaves only 18 games. Duke was also assigned an additional game against Miami as well as conference favorite Louisville. It may seem strange that the Blue Devils host Louisville twice instead of facing the Cardinals on their home court, but Senger confirmed that it was scheduled as such by the conference.

Senger also believes in the conference’s ability to reschedule games barring a COVID-19-related postponement. 

“It is hard to say [whether games will be rescheduled] at this point, because so much is unknown. However, should a conference game get postponed the teams in our league are going to make a good faith effort to reschedule,” Senger explained. 

Since Duke’s only long-distance road trips are within the conference, the Blue Devils look to minimize risk when traveling by simply following NCAA protocols limiting party size, bench numbers and identifying essential personnel. 

The postseason

As the men’s side has shuffled through dozens of ideas about how to hold an NCAA Championship, from pushing it back to May or holding the entire event in Indianapolis, the women’s tournament still comes with question marks. Schools across the country remain on their heels waiting for an announcement—but like most things sports-related over the last eight months, nothing is certain. 

Duke is in a position to challenge for an at-large bid if the tournament retains its typical format, however, the NCAA is certain to entertain all possible options considering the massive losses the organization faced with cancelled tournaments in 2020. 

With the intensive planning and prepared resources, Duke is in a good position to play many of the games on its schedule. Much of the credit for the excellent preparation for the winter sports season belongs to Senior Associate Athletic Director Bob Weisman and his staff, who have worked tirelessly over the last several months to ensure the athletic teams have the best opportunity to compete. 

“Everyone has kept a positive attitude, remained patient, and flexible," Senger added. "We are also fortunate to share a building with great partners in men’s basketball. The ability to share information, ideas and procedures has been huge and will ultimately help us provide the best student-athlete experience we can during this pandemic.”     

In a college basketball season like none other, it depends on Duke and fellow ACC schools staying diligent to create as safe an environment as possible for its teams to continue play.

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