How COVID-19 has impacted start of conference play, plus what to watch in women's hoops

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It's supposed to be the celebrated tipoff to conference play, but like so many other aspects of life, even this is being delayed for most teams this week. 

A host of Division I teams are entering 2022 in quarantine and can't play games because of COVID-19 health and safety protocols. That includes No. 11 UConn, the first ranked team out of the holiday break to enter protocols. Conferences have adjusted their rules, which formerly called for a team to forfeit if it could not play, and the postponements/cancellations are piling up. 

At least three Pac-12 programs are in protocols with games postponed. Arizona, who dealt with protocols ahead of the break, has not played since Dec. 17 and isn't scheduled to take the court again until Jan. 7. There are also a growing number of Big Ten and Big East programs that had to cancel games due to protocols. 

The immediate impact: teams will have long layoffs and later could have packed schedules while also juggling school. Missing these conference games will also impact tournament seeding, matchups and resumes for the NCAA tournament. 

The lesser-focused affect is varied, but no less important. Some players and teams may have had to isolate from family over the holidays, already a short period to see their loved ones. They have to deal with the mental health aspect that includes juggling student life while avoiding contracting the highly contagious Omicron variant. And even if they do everything right, it could all come crashing down. 

It's similar to the situation Stanford faced last year, as Mikaela Brewer chronicled the mental health impacts the team faced and still might battle.  

Programs impacted by COVID-19

This list will be updated throughout the week with any new conference policies and programs in health and safety protocol.

ACC: Teams required to have seven available scholarship athletes and one countable coach to play. Games will be rescheduled if possible. If not, will be no contest. Conference adopted new CDC recommendation for shorter isolation periods after a positive test if certain criteria are met.

Programs impacted this week: Pittsburgh (vs. Georgia Tech rescheduled to Jan. 11); Virginia (vs. Notre Dame)

Big 12: No announced changes

Programs: Oklahoma State (scheduled to return Sunday vs. Texas); Texas (vs. Alcorn State); West Virginia vs. Maryland-Eastern Shore canceled due to issues with UMES

Big East: Games are currently canceled with an attempt to be rescheduled later in the season

Programs: Marquette (at No. 11 UConn); Providence (at Xavier, Butler); Georgetown (vs. St. John's, Seton Hall); No. 11 UConn (at DePaul)

Big Ten: Seven players, one coach policy with postponements and cancelations. A team that does meet those numbers, but can make a case it is unsafe to compete, will not face automatic forfeiture.

Programs: Penn State (vs. No. 21 Iowa, vs. No. 25 Ohio State); Wisconsin (vs. Purdue); Illinois (vs. No. 6 Maryland, vs. No. 21 Iowa); Northwestern (vs. Minnesota); Rutgers (vs. No. 8 Indiana)

SEC: Teams required to play if seven players and one coach is available. Games will be rescheduled or declared a no contest.

Programs: Auburn (at No. 22 Kentucky); Ole Miss (vs. Arkansas, vs. No. 1 South Carolina)

Pac-12: Minimum players (7) and coaches (1) required. Conference will try to reschedule games or if needed determine a "no contest." Can levy forfeit if standards of sportsmanship are not met.

Programs: UCLA (vs. No. 4 Arizona, ASU); USC (at UCLA, vs. No. 4 Arizona); Washington (vs. No. 2 Stanford, vs. Cal); Oregon State vs. North Carolina Central canceled due to issues in Eagles program. 

Caitlin Clark
Caitlin Clark is experiencing a cold shooting start to the season. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Iowa tumbles as shooting goes cold

It has been a rough start to the 2021-22 season for the Iowa Hawkeyes, who were ranked as high as No. 8 in mid-November Associated Press Top 25 poll. But the Hawkeyes (6-3, 1-0 Big Ten) tumbled and tumbled some more amid starts and stops, dropping to No. 21 this week after falling six spots. Their fall was the largest and rivaled only by South Florida (No. 18 to No. 22) in a week that was largely untouched.

Iowa had to cancel three games, including a trip to the Cancun Challenge, because of COVID-19 protocols in its program and returned out of a two-week break to be crushed by Duke. A tight loss to Iowa State followed and ahead of the holiday break the Hawkeyes were upset in the final minutes by IUPUI. 

Now they're being delayed again with Thursday's game at Penn State canceled because of issues in the Nittany Lions' program. Their next scheduled game is Sunday vs. Illinois. (Update: This was canceled Wednesday due to a case in the Illinois program. The Hawkeyes are scheduled to play Thursday, Jan. 6 against Northwestern, which is also in protocols currently.)

Iowa could use consistency, or at least a schedule going according to plan to get back in sync. It's hard not to believe the COVID-19 disruption had something to do with it. 

The Hawkeyes are still one of the nation's best shooting teams, ranking 19th at 46.7%. But they've slipped from behind the arc, shooting 30% (191st) and averaging 7.1 makes per game to opponents' 7.2. It's a significant drop from their 40% clip last season averaging 9.6 per game to opponents' 8.3. 

Gabbie Marshall is still the team's best shooter at around 43%, but McKenna Warnock and volume shooter Caitlin Clark haven't fared as well. Warnock is shooting 8% worse while Clark dropped from 40.6% to 25% (22-of-88) through nine games. Two of her three worse outings were against Duke (1-13) and IUPUI (1-7). 

What to watch 

Schedule as of Tuesday at 12 p.m. ET. See here for the full schedule.

No. 19 LSU (11-1) at No. 13 Georgia (11-1), Thursday at 7 p.m. ET on SECN+ — It's the SEC opener for both teams in Athens and for LSU head coach Kim Mulkey. 

No. 25 Ohio State (9-2) at No. 9 Michigan (11-1), Friday at 12 p.m. ET on BTN — It was a high-scoring affair for Michigan's Naz Hillmon in last season's matchup.

No. 3 Louisville (10-1) at No. 16 Georgia Tech (10-2), Sunday at 12 p.m. ET on ACCN — It's Louisville's fourth game against a ranked opponent and Georgia Tech's third. 

No. 17 Notre Dame (11-2) at No. 15 Duke (9-1), Sunday at 2 p.m. ET on ACCNX — Kara Lawson will coach her first ACC game with Niele Ivey and the Fighting Irish in town. 

No. 6 Maryland (10-3) at No. 8 Indiana (10-2), Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN2 — Maryland hasn't fared well in a tough non-conference slate, but Diamond Miller returned from injury ahead of the break.

No. 23 Texas A&M (10-2) at No. 19 LSU (11-1), Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on SECN+ — Gary Blair vs. Kim Mulkey on the sideline. Should be fun.

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