A glimpse within the 2020-21 basketball schedule and the challenges of forming it

Georgia's women's basketball schedule is coming, but there's an idea of non-conference foes. It took a long process to get to this point.

ATHENS, Ga. — Recent weeks must’ve had their exhausting moments for Georgia director of basketball operations Meredith Mitchell.

The main task for her, head coach Joni Taylor and the Lady Bulldogs’ staff during the Covid-19 pandemic has been daunting. Georgia had to form a basketball schedule while ensuring their players remain healthy, protocols are followed and teams can mutually agree on a date to play.

All while putting safety at the forefront.

Whew. Good luck with that one.

Taylor and the Lady Bulldogs were given scheduling parameters to work within over recent months before the season officially tips off with a delayed start of Nov. 25. Georgia must play 13 games in order to be considered for the NCAA tournament, which seems like an easy task until potential game cancellations or postponements are factored in.

“We have to have a plan B, C and D,” Taylor said on Oct. 16, when Georgia didn’t have a firm idea of its schedule. “We've been very healthy, and I'm proud of that given we've been with them since June. We're going to do everything we can to stay healthy and remain healthy.”

The SEC releases its league-wide schedule at 10 a.m. Friday. Assumedly, Georgia will reveal its entire slate at that time.

Until then, a glimpse of Georgia’s non-conference slate is available based on schedule releases by other programs. Of note, the in-state rivalry with Georgia Tech remains alive in one major sport. Georgia football and men’s basketball had to table the game with the Yellow Jackets for the first time since the 1920s due to the pandemic and restructured scheduling.

Nov 25: at Mercer (Hawkins Arena, Macon, Ga.)

Nov. 29: at Georgia Tech (McCamish Pavilion, Atlanta, Ga.)

Dec. 6: vs. Oklahoma (Big 12-SEC Challenge)

Dec. 9: vs. Jacksonville State

Dec. 12: vs. Radford

Dec. 22: vs. Appalachian State

Dec. 31: SEC play opens

March 3-7: SEC Tournament (Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Greenville, S.C.)

The publicized games could already round out the early schedule, too. The only window for additional contests could be a mid-week game between Georgia Tech and Oklahoma, between Radford and Appalachian State (although finals week could eliminate the possibility) or between Dec. 22 and Dec. 31 before SEC play begins.

Of the confirmed games, the Lady Bulldogs will travel three times, all within their own region. Men’s basketball released an eight-game schedule on Thursday, and all of its non-conference games are at Stegeman Coliseum.

For home games, Stegeman Coliseum will be around a 16.7% capacity, according to Sr. Deputy athletic director Josh Brooks. The Lady Bulldogs did release season-ticket sales to select groups. Masks or face coverings will be required at all times due to the indoor venue, Brooks said.

“We went from 'Let's play two or three non-conference games and then take a break in case something happens' to now 'We need to play as many games as possible in case we have to forfeit (or cancel games),’” Taylor said. “God forbid you only schedule 23 or 24 and then you have to forfeit and don't make the minimum requirement for the tournament.”

One of the biggest challenges through the pandemic is how Georgia navigates its schedule. It has become evident that some games might be in doubt. It’s nearly unavoidable for teams to face a Covid-19 positive test, have issues due to contact tracing or face an issue with the opponent. It has ravaged college football over the past week with a number of cancellations.

Georgia has had three of its own coaches — Billy Lesesne (women’s soccer), Meghan Boenig (equestrian) and Manny Diaz (men’s tennis) — become sidelined due to positive tests.

Those within the women’s basketball program realize it’s a possibility, although safety is the No. 1 priority yet again. Taylor understands that and the question becomes how the Lady Bulldogs adjust.

There are built-in off weeks during a 16-game conference slate to allow for make-up games. There’s not the same wiggle room elsewhere. If the Lady Bulldogs or their opponent have to concede or cancel a game, there’s not many open dates to reschedule games. There was also an elaborate process to nail down opponents as Georgia had to share SEC protocols, find an agreement and contractually sign off on those guidelines being followed.

OK, now you can exhale.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Taylor said. “We want to have enough games and a portfolio that is strong enough to make the NCAA tournament.”

Logistically, forming a way to play in 2020 hasn’t been easy. Georgia had to figure out its opponents while taking unique factors into account. It has to find ways to transport the team safely. There are protocols that the team must follow in regard to being socially distanced and safe within Stegeman Coliseum.

And through it all, Georgia basketball is supposed to live on with a heightened level of expectations this season. It realizes the need to return to the NCAA tournament, but the path won’t be straightforward to get there.

But basketball is back. That’s a needed bit of normalcy for all programs across the sport.

“We’re really excited to actually get to play,” senior point guard Gabby Connally said. “There was some uncertainty (early on).”