Kiki Rice arrived at No. 11 UCLA knowing it would take time to adjust to the college game, even as a touted recruit.
These days, that’s tougher than usual.
Women's college basketball has typically kept players around compared to the frequent early exits to the professional ranks that are so common on the men's side. But the women's game has gotten even older — meaning there is much more experience on the roster — with players having extra eligibility granted because of the pandemic.
That has led to first-year players facing more fifth- and sixth-year players, creating a bigger gap to overcome in experience and strength than before.
Even for the Bruins, whose rookies have made quick gains behind the 18-year-old Rice, coach Cori Close notes it's “sort of a weird moment in time.”
“I do think it just widens the gap between the newbies and the vets,” Close said. “It’s just more that they have to overcome. I’ve got the No. 1 class in the country, and I know it’s been really hard.”
The pandemic created unprecedented upheaval in college sports, including the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA tournaments and a free year for players, men and women, who competed during the 2020-21 season.
It’s difficult to quantify exactly how big that age gap has become.
According to NCAA data, the average experience level for players on Division I women's teams stood at 2.4 years for 2018-19, the last full season untouched by the pandemic, and has increased to 2.6 this year. But the NCAA’s data set is based on a four-year scale, meaning it doesn’t factor in higher averages with more players sticking around for fifth and sixth years that would drive that figure even higher.
There are still another two years before the extra COVID-19 years largely cycle out of the sport.
“I think we’re in this window that it is hard to be a freshman,” Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said. “Typically, freshmen at times have been able to play through mistakes. But now there’s a lot of times you see the disparity between a fifth-year, sometimes a sixth-year player and a freshman, especially early in the season.”
There is a physical edge that comes with years of training within college programs. There is also the maturity that comes from having countless reps in the same systems, or years of experience at another school before transferring in a time of unfettered player movement.
That's quite an advantage for teams led by veterans vs. those relying on talented youngsters.
North Carolina coach Courtney Banghart experienced that during the 2020-21 season when she restocked a roster with young talent like Deja Kelly, Alyssa Ustby and Kennedy Todd-Williams. That group is now the core of a team ranked No. 6 in the AP Top 25.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys who played early and played against really old, mature people,” Banghart said. “And no one’s there to make excuses for them because nobody cares. That absolutely has helped them.
“What you don’t have is just the luxury of, ‘It’s OK,’” Banghart added. “It’s not OK. You have to be good enough when your name is called, no matter how old you are.”
At fourth-ranked Indiana, the Hoosiers added a third-year transfer in Sydney Parrish from Oregon (12.5 points per game) and a fourth-year player in Sara Scalia from Minnesota (11.9) to a team with fourth-year returnee Mackenzie Holmes (19.8).
Only one of four first-year players – starter Yarden Garzon – is playing more than 14 minutes.
“Spend as much time with those freshmen as you can,” Indiana coach Teri Moren said. “As much as you can inside or outside of practice to develop their skill. Try to get them minutes in games.”
At UCLA, Close has leaned into that while pushing the importance of incremental gains to her rookie class, which features Rice as espnW’s No. 2 overall recruit, forward Gabriela Jaquez (No. 19), point guard Londynn Jones (No. 22) and post player Christeen Iwuala (No. 49) along with forward Lina Sontag from Germany.
“We need to celebrate those inches of growth even more,” Close said, “because the gap can seem so wide.”
Much of the attention has focused on Rice, a 5-11 point guard averaging 12.3 points and 4.8 rebounds with the size and skills to create mismatches.
“I’m sometimes a little hard on myself because I want to be consistent,” Rice said. “I want to have everything down and feel like I know what I’m doing.
“But I think like, especially as a freshman, I do have to give myself some leeway. And just stay confident out there and not get too down. Because I know people around me have been doing this for years, and I’m just few weeks into it."
Close is playing all her freshmen – each averages at least 14.8 minutes – and counting on them to grow up fast under the tutelage of a sixth-year guard in Wake Forest graduate transfer Gina Conti and fourth-year guard Charisma Osborne (team-high 18.1 points).
That approach has worked so far. The Bruins won last month's Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas after starting the year unranked — it was their veterans that provided the closing kick — and their only loss came at top-ranked South Carolina.
There’s plenty of confidence, and room to grow with it.
“I think we have a lot of great young energy,” Rice said, “And I think we’re not afraid to compete against the 22-, 24-year-olds.”
AP Basketball Writer Doug Feinberg contributed to this report.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap
AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25