On Monday evening, a lot of questions were answered in terms of No. 17 West Virginia’s fate in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
The fourth-seeded Mountaineers (21-5) will play No. 13 seed Lehigh (10-5) in the first round of the Hemisfair Region, with the game slated for an 8 p.m. tipoff Sunday at Bill Greehey Arena in San Antonio. The game will air on ESPNU.
But as of WVU coach Mike Carey’s Zoom press conference on Tuesday afternoon, there were still some unknowns as well, primarily when the Mountaineers would leave Morgantown, when and how hard they would practice, and the status of point guard Madisen Smith, who has been out with injury since an 81-78 win over TCU on Feb. 20.
Carey had ruled Smith out until at least the NCAA Tournament, but with that now squarely in front of the Mountaineers, he is still uncertain about her availability.
“As far as Madisen, I just don’t know,” Carey said. “Is she getting better? Yeah, but I don’t know if we’re going to be willing to put her out there. She’s going to have to get a lot better over this week and we’ll see.
“Now she wants to play and she’s going to be mad at me and all that. I already warned her mom and dad that she’s going to call you and say she’s mad at me, but I’m not going to put her out there unless I feel she’s going to be safe. And if I don’t feel that way, then she won’t play.”
Though Smith is the only WVU player whose status is in doubt for Sunday, she’s hardly the end Carey’s injury concerns. Senior point guard Kysre Gondrezick played through a sprained ankle in three games of the Big 12 Tournament, which ended on Sunday. In the championship game against No. 5 Baylor, a 76-50 loss for the Mountaineers, guard KK Deans and forward Esmery Martinez each sprained an ankle as well.
With a short rotation and injury concerns all season, the Mountaineers have limped through their fair share of light practices. Carey said on Tuesday that it’s another situation he will have to feel out, though ideally his team will be well enough to work out some offensive kinks.
“Honestly, I think we need to practice,” Carey said. “We need to get a couple of really good practices in, especially because of our offense right now. I don’t like where we are offensively. Everybody’s chasing the ball, the spacing is not good. The rotation, the movement is not good, so we really need to iron that out in practice.
“Now, that being said, we’re not practicing [Tuesday]. We’ll come [Wednesday] and hopefully the players with the ankles [and other ailments] are ready to practice. Now, if they can’t go full speed then that changes practices. So, I’ll just have to play it by ear [Wednesday] morning.”
In several different ways. As of the time of the Zoom call, travel arrangements had not been solidified either for WVU, which will weigh heavily on the team’s Wednesday practice plans.
“The NCAA has not called us yet and told us what time we’re leaving [Wednesday],” Carey said. “A lot of people [are] flying, they’re going to use the same planes and connections and all that, but we don’t know what time we leave [Wednesday]. But we do want to have a practice before we leave. Hopefully, we’re not leaving at 10 in the morning, because that means I’ll have to have a practice at about 6 in the morning.”
One certainty is that, unlike past seasons, the entirety of the women’s tournament will be played at a neutral site. In the past, the top 16 teams (No. 1 through No. 4 seeds) hosted the first two rounds of the tournament, with location weighing heavily on which teams ended up in which regions.
Carey has been outspoken against that format for years, and it’s something that has often put his teams on the short end of the stick.
This year, as a No. 4 seed, WVU would have finally been in position to host, and with the program seeking its first Sweet 16 berth since 1992 (and the first under Carey), that could have been a major advantage.
Still, Carey believes geographic neutrality is an important step for the tournament, and one he hopes stays even after COVID-19 considerations are no longer an issue.
“This is the first year we could host. We’re a top-16 seed, isn’t that amazing?” Carey said. “Then we would have the advantage. But now, because nobody is hosting, we don’t have an advantage like all the other year’s I’ve complained about how this would never happen on the men’s side. And now we have to play on a neutral site now that we have the advantage.
“But I’d rather have every year played on a neutral floor. I just think that’s fair in the NCAA Tournament. You play on a neutral floor, you don’t play on the home floor. That’s too much of an advantage.”