Women's college basketball FAQ: Crowded rosters, recruiting uncertainty and extended eligibility

UConn coach Geno Auriemma isn't a fan of the NCAA's decision to grant an extra year of eligibility, especially when programs are already dealing with budget shortfalls due to loss of revenue during the pandemic. David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

If 2019-20 was the season without an ending in women's college basketball, 2020-21 could be the season without any goodbyes.

That isn't likely to happen, of course. But after the NCAA granted additional eligibility to all winter-sports athletes, no one has to walk off the court this season for the final time.

Next year's season preview, in other words, could look very familiar.

All of which means that in addition to figuring out how to practice and play amid coronavirus protocols, coaches and players now face yet one more challenge unlike any previously encountered. From freshmen like UConn's Paige Bueckers to sixth-year seniors like Indiana's Ali Patberg, every player eventually has a choice to make. And every coach has to figure out how to plot a program's future around those decisions.

So what does the NCAA decision mean for women's basketball? ESPN spoke with more than a dozen coaches and players to get a sense of how people are beginning to process the change and how it might impact programs across the country and the 2021 WNBA draft.

What did the NCAA change about eligibility?

As women's basketball teams began their first full practices on Oct. 14, the NCAA announced that all winter-sports athletes "who compete during 2020-21 in Division I will receive both an additional season of competition and an additional year in which to complete it."

There will be games this season. There will hopefully be a champion. But the 2020-21 women's college basketball season won't mark the end of any player's eligibility.

Yet the normal flow of high school athletes to college rosters will continue. Not every detail is clear at the moment, but for the 2021-22 season, Division I women's basketball teams will be allowed to exceed 15 scholarships. Individual schools still must fund the additional roster spots, but for one season, the incoming freshman can share the roster with the senior she was supposed to replace.

Beyond the 2021-22 season, programs will again be limited to 15 scholarships, no matter how many players in those future seasons are utilizing eligibility gained now.

For what that looks like in the real world, let's use UCLA as an example.

Before the recent NCAA decision, senior Michaela Onyenwere was on track to complete her eligibility in the 2020-21 season. As a result of the NCAA decision, she could play this season and return for a fifth season in 2021-22. UCLA coach Cori Close said recently that the school's administration already committed to funding the necessary scholarships, meaning Onyenwere could return without affecting the scholarship money committed to incoming freshmen.

Easy enough, at least relative to what comes next.

Current sophomore Charisma Osborne was on track to complete her four seasons of eligibility in the 2022-23 season. But she could now return for a fifth season in 2023-24. Doing so would mean one fewer scholarship that the Bruins have to work with in that recruiting class.

Granted, in this hypothetical, UCLA would probably love to have a "problem" like a fifth season from a WNBA talent. But that scenario is now true for every player on every roster in Division I.

What is the value in doing this now?

In March, athletes in spring sports were granted an additional year of eligibility -- after their seasons were cut short and championships canceled. Similarly for fall sports, athletes were granted an extra year of eligibility after all but a handful of conferences canceled fall competition and with details of any spring replacement seasons still up in the air. This means that women's basketball and the rest of the winter sports are the first to confront issues of additional eligibility while simultaneously trying to pull off something approximating a normal season.

The logic of doing it now, rather than waiting to see if the season is further interrupted, is to save players from worrying about potentially risking eligibility that could vanish if the pandemic again shuts down the regular season or, as appears inevitable, interrupts schedules.

"What it does mostly is allows us to table any sort of conversations about what this year might look like," North Carolina coach Courtney Banghart said. "We understand the personal responsibility we have to keep this year a possibility and a year we can thrive. We also understand that we require other teams to have that same personal responsibility. So unlike any other year, you can have a disruption that maybe had nothing to do with you."

What challenges do coaches envision?

Informed of the NCAA's decision minutes after the announcement was made public, UConn coach Geno Auriemma was less than enthusiastic. And typically blunt.

"I don't like it," Auriemma said. "If you lose your season, I can see that. If you say, 'Hey look, the fall sports guys, you lost your season, we'll give that back to you.' I can see that. That makes sense. But how are you going to let somebody play a whole season and then give them another year?"

Many of his peers have been less unfiltered in the days since, and many appear to appreciate and agree with Banghart's point that the eligibility move alleviates one immediate source of stress for players trying to start a season amid the uncertainty of outbreaks and lockdowns. But Auriemma is far from alone in seeing unresolved questions, if not outright problems, when it comes to implementing the new rule across four classes.

First, as Auriemma noted, many athletic departments already face severe budget shortfalls due to loss of revenue during the pandemic. They can't magically create money to cover the extra cost. Some schools will be able to go beyond normal scholarship allocations next season, as Close said of UCLA. But others will not.

"You're going to have some seniors go, 'Hey, I want to stay.' And then you've got a coach going like, 'I wasn't planning on you staying.' Now what are you going to do, turn the kid out?" UConn coach Geno Auriemma

And while significant, paying for the new rule is only part of the challenge. Incoming freshmen and even current underclassmen anticipated a certain role or a certain amount of playing time as the years progressed. They might now find a crowded depth chart. Even if you can afford a large roster, do you want one?

"I think you're going to have a lot of coaches that are going to go, 'You're putting me in a tough spot here,'" Auriemma said. "Because now you're going to have some seniors [say], 'Hey, I want to stay.' And then you've got a coach going like, 'I wasn't planning on you staying.'

"Now what are you going to do, turn the kid out?"

Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said she jokingly approached her current seniors shortly after the announcement and asked them if they knew their decisions. It was, she emphasized, an impossible request made in jest, but the reality is that planning around a variable like this will be difficult. How will it affect Baylor's backcourt if current seniors DiDi Richards and Moon Ursin return next season, just as transfers Kamaria McDaniel and Jaden Owens become eligible? Does the coach need to recruit post replacements for Queen Egbo and NaLyssa Smith in the class of 2022? Or will it be 2023?

Notre Dame's Niele Ivey and Mississippi State's Nikki McCray-Penson, each in her first season at those schools, said they have barely even started to think about the ramifications, let alone discuss options with their players. Only recently able to work in person with their new players and still sorting through scheduling issues, there simply isn't time for everything.

"The way I'm going to approach it is that I'm going to look out for this program," Mulkey said. "This program is bigger than me, this program is bigger than any player. And yet I understand they have to look out for themselves. There will be three or four that have already said, 'Coach, I'm coming back, I want my degrees, I want two degrees before I leave Baylor.' And we'll take care of them. I'll take care of players that want to be at Baylor."

Yet she also acknowledged she can't stop recruiting as if it will be business as usual.

"You can't turn down recruits with anticipation that people are going to want to come back that fifth year," Mulkey said. "It's going to be probably a little bit, in-house, controversial for a lot of coaching staffs and programs because what if you oversign? You're going to have to cut somebody."

And there isn't anything close to a consensus on those long-term effects. Oregon coach Kelly Graves noted that while he could in theory have a couple of seventh-year seniors in Sedona Prince and Nyara Sabally by the time the new rule plays out, he didn't expect to need to worry about it. Players will get their degrees and seek new opportunities, whether in professional basketball or elsewhere.

"Most of our other players, those that have pro aspirations, will get their degree and move on," Graves said. "I don't think it's going to affect recruiting much because I don't see everybody opting in for the fifth-year thing."

What do players think?

It's tempting to imagine the possibilities if everyone sticks around. How good might the Pac-12 be in 2021-22, for example, if Arizona's Aari McDonald, UCLA's Onyenwere, and Stanford's Kiana Williams are still around to compete against Oregon's youth movement? What if Baylor gets two seasons with grad transfer DiJonai Carrington instead of just one?

For a small group of players, the eligibility edict means deciding whether to put WNBA aspirations on hold -- because of injury, an effort to improve draft stock or simply out of a desire to play another college season or advance academically.

A versatile 6-foot-2 guard and forward, Tennessee senior Rennia Davis is representative of the group. She said last week that she watched more of the WNBA this summer than ever before "because that's where I want to be at next year." But Davis didn't completely shut the door on a fifth season for the Lady Vols.

"I'm not closed off to anything right now," Davis said. "I'm more so just focused on how we're going to do this season coming up. I think I have a lot of time to think about whether I want to enter my name into the draft next year or return for a fifth season. But as of today, I'm not as concerned about that as maybe other people are."

And as much attention as those dozen or so players will receive in weighing their options, the choice ultimately is no different for thousands of other players who now have an extra year.

Some have opted out of the upcoming season because of coronavirus concerns, Stanford's Maya Dodson and UCLA's Kiara Jefferson and Kayla Owens among them (and it's possible that Bethune-Cookman won't be the last school to cancel all sports this academic year). But it appears that most women's basketball players will play, meaning they are approaching the extra season of eligibility as a potential bonus season rather than a replacement.

"I have actually put a lot of thought into it," Kentucky senior KeKe McKinney said. "And that's something that I am considering. But I'm going to leave it open. I don't want to make any final decisions right now, but I am definitely interested in coming back for another year."

In McKinney's case, that extra year would coincide with 2020-21 player of the year front-runner Rhyne Howard's senior season and perhaps Kentucky's best opportunity to win its first national championship in women's basketball. But across the sport, the additional eligibility could also play a part in ever greater player movement when combined with the NCAA Division I Council's recent move toward approving a one-time transfer exception that would go into effect in time for the 2021-22 academic year.

So what happens when all involved shift from getting through this season to focusing on what comes next? There is ample opportunity for problems, and for potential miscommunication and fractured relationships between players and coaches who aren't on the same page. And the financial reality of the pandemic might eventually create a game of musical chairs in which not every player who wants to remain has a place to play.

But after everyone has seen some part of their lives changed and routines upended during the pandemic, reclaiming some sense of control and normalcy is intriguing.

"That's another year to be able to play the game, to be able to be in school, to be able to wait to start real life," said Baylor senior Moon Ursin, who was injured in a collision during practice with teammate DiDi Richard this past week. "We're thinking our decision through. It's not something we automatically know or something we automatically can decide today."

How much could this affect the 2021 WNBA draft?

It likely depends on what kind of college season happens. If there are disruptions to the regular season or NCAA tournament because of COVID-19, some seniors who are good enough to be drafted might stay in college in hope of experiencing one last "normal" season.

But Atlanta Dream coach Nicki Collen, whose team will be in the WNBA draft lottery, said she thinks that might be the only reason a player would stay in college. And even that might not impact the decision of someone perceived as having a good chance to be a first-round pick.

"You reach a certain age where you realize there is a finite time to make money," Collen said. "If they didn't get a full experience of a real season, or they feel like they could make a run at a national championship, that might impact the decision. But they may also question how much longer they're willing to wait, with the new [WNBA collective bargaining agreement] and being able to make more money a little faster.

"But it does complicate things. We're going to be asking college coaches that question about seniors -- 'Will she come back?' -- the same way we ask it about draft-eligible juniors."

Collen also said that this draft is not projected to be deep. So anyone eligible for it might opt to go now and potentially get selected higher, rather than wait for what is expected to be a stronger draft class in 2022.

"Typically, players need to think about, 'Where am I going in the draft?'" Collen said. "I would say this senior class is very thin. Do you want to put yourself into a better draft the next year?"

Mechelle Voepel contributed to this report.