Lynne Roberts isn’t going to pretend that the things going on around her and her Utah women’s basketball program right now are normal.
The Utes coach spoke Wednesday afternoon about the ongoing daily COVID-19 testing protocols inside the athletic department. The intricacies of getting an international-heavy roster into the United States in the middle of the pandemic was another topic of conversation, as was the plight of college freshmen having a pandemic dominate their initial away-from-home experience.
In the middle of all of the unprecedented COVID-related factors Roberts is now forced to navigate, there is still basketball and with it, a sense of normalcy.
College basketball practice was able to begin across the country Wednesday, with Roberts presiding over practice No. 1 ahead of her sixth season at the helm.
“There’s always excitement regardless of a pandemic, it doesn’t matter,” Roberts said on a Zoom call with reporters. “The players get new gear and there’s just a heightened level of enthusiasm. There’s just new things that are the new normal and they’re just becoming commonplace, but that still doesn’t dampen the excitement that players feel, that coaches feel. I think there’s a sense of we’re really just feeling blessed that we get to have a season.”
As recently as two months ago, Roberts was pessimistic a season would be played in any form. At a minimum, there wasn’t going to be a season until at least Jan. 1 after the Pac-12 suspended all sports competitions through the end of the year on Aug. 11. Even if a season were to take place starting on or around Jan. 1, it was likely to be drastically limited as a conference-only slate.
Daily-antigen testing in the Pac-12 was announced on Sept. 3, and the wheels began turning for a basketball season to be played starting Nov. 25, which is only two weeks later than the originally-scheduled start.
With a season now coming into focus, Roberts and the Utes are now practicing, but there are still things to iron out. Roberts said Wednesday that the Pac-12 schedule on the women’s side will be 22 games, producing a double round-robin in which everyone plays everyone else twice. Dates, times, even a travel schedule are all unknown as the Pac-12 works through what a men’s schedule will look like as well, but Roberts knows its 22 games.
A 22-game conference slate on the women’s side means Roberts only has to schedule three nonconference games, but those decisions are on hold until she has conference dates locked in. The Utes, 14-17 a year ago, but with most of the core back plus a pair of four-star recruits in former North Summit star Kennady McQueen and 6-foot-4 Boise native Peyton McFarland, were scheduled to play in the Preseason WNIT.
That event, originally slated for Nov. 13-22, was canceled, so Utah is left to schedule elsewhere. Roberts indicated the ideal scenario would be to play three in-state opponents, which wouldn’t require air travel or hotel stays, but the main sticking point will be testing protocols.
Utah athletic director Mark Harlan has been clear in recent weeks that his basketball programs will not play against another team or as part of a multi-team event that cannot mirror Utah’s testing protocols, which, thanks to the Pac-12, are daily.
That, like everything else these days, is something Roberts is willing to go with if it means there is going to be a basketball season.
“This whole year has taught all of us, and as coaches, we’re pretty good at trying to control everything, but COVID has made it that we can’t control a lot,” Robert said. "We’re rolling with it, and I’ve learned a lot in this offseason about what’s important and focusing on our players and leading them the best way that I can.
“I’m excited about our season, but again, we’re going to roll with it and we’ll be just fine.”