On USF's NCAA snub, the NIT and more ...
It seemed all but certain that USF's women's basketball team would be in the NCAA Tournament. The Bulls had spent an uneasy week on the bubble, but all the projections, all the number-crunching pointed to USF making the cut. You'd preface anything you said with "there's no way of knowing what the committee will do," but the week unfolded in a way that truly seemed to favor the Bulls.
The atmosphere at Jose Fernandez's Wesley Chapel home reflected that -- TV crews set up in his living room, his players in white USF polos seated on his couch, green-and-gold balloons all over. In the minutes leading up to the announcement, the larger question wasn't if, but where -- in Lubbock? in Duluth? on the West coast? I mentioned that one projection had the Bulls as a No. 10 seed, facing LSU in Baton Rouge in the opening round. "I'd take that," a USF assistant said, and I thought to myself that when a program has only been to the dance once in its history, there's no such thing as a bad NCAA draw.
Fernandez had set his magic number at 22 wins, and with good reason. To find a Big East team that won 22 games and missed the NCAA cut, you have to go all the way back to 1987, when Providence went 23-9 but missed out, with Villanova as the only Big East team selected -- yes, one bid. The NCAA field was only 40 teams then -- to put the history in perspective, Tennessee won its first national championship that season.
Since then, there had been 68 Big East women's basketball teams that finished with 22 or more wins -- the only ones who didn't make the NCAA Tournament were Marquette and Pittsburgh in 2006, and they finished the regular season with 19 and 18 wins before meeting in the NIT Final Four.
Having said that, the NCAA may still be uncomfortable with giving one league eight bids, as they'd done for the Big East in the previous two seasons. I'm sure the bubble conversation came up that USF would be the Big East's eighth team, while Minnesota would be the fifth Big Ten team, or Georgia the seventh SEC team. It's easy to be wowed by VCU's 26 wins, not worrying about who they were earned against.
This is a USF team that lost four games by 30 points or more, that didn't win back-to-back Big East games until the 11th game of its conference season. While the Bulls didn't lose a game to any opponents not in the RPI top 100, there were losses they'd like to have back now -- the Bulls were Georgetown's only top-50 win (in Tampa, no less) and West Virginia's second-best win of the year. USF lost at home to Marquette three days after the Golden Eagles lost to Wisconsin-Milwaukee (RPI: 217).
You can spin any bubble team as deserving to be in, or justified in being out. Pick their best criteria, it seems a lock they're in; pick their weakest area and they seem questionable. You can understand why Fernandez is frustrated, having had the same thing happen to his team twice in three years.
-- Georgia's women's team reminds me of Arizona's men, who were also on the bubble and kept a long streak alive by making the cut. Arizona's men have been in 25 straight NCAAs, and this is Georgia's 16th straight appearance. I had Georgia in my projected field of 64, on the strength of home wins against Auburn, Florida and Vanderbilt. But the NCAA likes teams to do well away from home -- none of USF's five top-50 wins came in Tampa. Georgia went to Rutgers (where USF won) and lost by 11, scoring just 34 points, and the Bulldogs lost to Xavier, Virginia and Georgia Tech. USF went 5-6 against top 50 teams, Georgia went 4-10.
-- Minnesota? Again, I had them in the field, but the Gophers lost four of their last five, including a horrendous loss at 7-23 Northwestern. The NCAA points to nonconference strength of schedule, and Minnesota's is certainly tougher, with games against Stanford, Iowa State and Boston College. Still, nearly half of Minnesota's conference schedule -- 8 of 18 games -- came against teams not in the RPI top 100. USF had two such games in its Big East schedule. VCU? Great record, but they only played three teams that made the NCAAs, and only beat one (Liberty). USF, by comparison, played 10 and won four. I just felt like losing in the Colonial semifinals -- to a James Madison team that remains their best win with an RPI of 57 -- took away a lot of VCU's credibility.
-- How is Louisville a No. 3 seed? Louisville was in the top five in the RPI and the national polls, and the Cardinals have EIGHT top-25 wins. Two of their four losses are to the No. 1 overall seed, Connecticut. I had them as the top No. 2 seed, just behind my worst No. 1 seed, Stanford. Not only is Louisville a full seed lower than they should, but they're forced to play sixth-seeded LSU in Baton Rouge in the second round. Last year, LSU got two games in Baton Rouge, then a regional in New Orleans, where they knocked off top-seeded UNC. Why give them a break like that two years in a row?
-- Onto the Women's NIT. USF has the fourth-highest RPI in the 48-team field, behind only Boston College (40), Richmond (43) and Bowling Green (44). For a team all too familiar with the NIT, the Bulls haven't had much success there -- just two wins in their four appearances, never more than one win in a postseason or going any farther than the NIT Sweet 16.
They'll face the winner of Thursday's George Washington-Florida Gulf Coast game. FGCU, you'll remember, ousted USF in the first round of last year's NIT -- they're an upstart program, one that beat Florida in Fort Myers to open this season and beat two other NCAA teams in UCF and East Tennessee. Having said that, ETSU is the only RPI top 100 team they've faced in the last three months, so it's a game USF should win in Tampa if it's a rematch with FGCU. If it's GW, its record against top 100 teams is 1-9 this season, with the win at home against Villanova. The NIT is all about motivation -- can a heartbroken team jilted by the NCAA find a drive to prove the selection committee wrong? USF won't face a team with an RPI higher than 58 in its first three games -- most likely Mississippi (RPI 90) and Wisconsin (58).