Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: The SEC Seven Owns NCAA Selection Monday

By Mike Siroky

Here is how bracketing works in the NCAA.

This is how an SEC team gets in even when it appears to not have earned an entry when compared to regular-season finishes in other conferences.

The Southeastern Conference will follow its own traditions closely. It expects to once again have the most league teams represented.

The NCAA Selection Committee, always stocked with representatives of every major conference who swear they “leave the room” when their own teams are being discussed, meet for several intense days. Before that, they have spent a season watching and assessing.

Unlike coaches who vote in the poll, they actually see other teams. If they are lucky enough to be associated with a major conference, they see several teams several times in the course of their regular jobs at universities.

About the only real requirement to be eligible is a winning record. That rule on the men’s side, for example, has consistently disqualified Northwestern from ever making the tournament.

In the women’s game, crowds count. Yes, a team with a sub-Region (first-round games) has to qualify with the winning record. But the NCAA is in business to make money and somehow must shoehorn in not-so-good teams to their own home games.

There are various other mysterious conjurings in the mix. In the women’s game, tradition counts a lot.

In the 28 seasons the NCAA Women's Division I Basketball Championship has been contested, SEC schools have reached the Final Four 32 times, more than twice as often as any other conference. So, just being competitive in such a league is a starting point.

Once you are viewed as an NCAA team, you get considered for the next several seasons. It is but one tiebreaker in case you are so bad you are nearly eliminated from consideration. That’s how the SEC keeps so many entrants.

Another way tradition plays in is you can pre-select some teams for some Regions.

Stanford will always be West. They have been in the Final Four five straight seasons. They have not won the title in more than two decades.

Tennessee and UConn will generally be East, even if that means South which lately has been more East the South.

UConn does not have to leave the state to qualify for the Final Four and even opens at home. Tennessee has done that and will host a sub-Regional again which basically means they are a Sweet 16 team again, likely in the South, but not a No. 1.

Texas A&M and LSU also host sub-Regionals, three being more than any other conference. The game within the game has begun.

Playing in a major conference helps the mythical strength of schedule argument. A team can be real strong at some point in the season then lose a star player for a few games or even weeks and the schedule hasn’t changed so much as the team has changed.

The three best SEC teams all lost to non-ranked conference opponents. Tennessee, leading the league most of the year, was not even the highest-ranked conference team until the last week of the season and lost that standing before the SEC tournament.

You have all these automatic conference qualifiers, the big happy family of the nationwide sorority. There are 31 of those. Once the conferences decided they, too, were in the business of making money (notice no consideration to the players’ well-being yet) they decided to have the post-season tournaments for the purpose of assigning their automatic bids to the NCAA Selection Committee.

This way, if a team not really on the radar at the end of the season makes a run and wins the conference tournament, they are in. Michigan state of the Big Ten may have done that this year by earning its way to the conference tournament finals.

The SEC men once had a non-tournament team win the SEC tournament and get a bid which only eliminated another schlub team from another conference. Besides, the best teams in that conference had higher seeds as at-large entrants.

In the women’s game, just last year, Purdue (and finalist Nebraska) each elevated their game in the immediate post-season and Purdue had an automatic bid after winning the conference tournament as a lower seed.

It happened again this season when Purdue and Michigan State advanced to the league conference finals over the only ranked teams in the conference.

That guaranteed at least four Big Ten teams in the field of 64.

Last season, Purdue was able to safely host the sub-Regional and sell more tickets, even though they were eliminated in the second game, the Sweet 16 qualifier, by the No. 5 team in the SEC, South Carolina. The tickets had been sold by then and the NCAA was satisfied.

Ohio State never did get hot enough to qualify this season. That’s one low tiebreaking consideration as a host team. They could have been the last team in their overall Regional, but playing at home to start. Instead, we have a truly neutral sub-Regional with no host team.

LSU knows that works for them this year as they have slipped from last season’s effort. They do host a sub-Region, an entry formula established 28 years ago. They have the marquee wins over Texas A&M and then Georgia.

For the record, Georgia finished on an 8-2 run in the final 10, which is an NCAA qualifier. South Carolina, LSU, Tennessee and Kentucky all went 7-3. Texas A&M and Vanderbilt were 6-4.

Another NCAA predictor, RPI, has the league’s best teams in the top 30 nationally (or better than half the NCAA draw), led by Tennessee (seventh), then Kentucky (ninth), South Carolina (12th), Texas A&M (16 th);Georgia (19th) and Vanderbilt (30th). LSU is 34th, but Arkansas (62nd), Florida (69 th) and Auburn (90th) are all in the top 100.

What won’t happen, if you have followed the silly bracketology on another site, is two conference teams playing against each other in the first round.

One such site had that locked in as of mid-February.

Sometimes a Region host team will have a tough entrance exam but with the possibility still of getting home for more games. Tennessee one year hosted the Final Four and lost in the Region to another SEC team. The former coach said the players would be “towel girls” at the Final Four. LSU could have two higher-seeded teams in their gym. They’d need two upsets to get to the Sweet 16.

If you basically come up with 64 teams, more than half of them are designated by winning conference tournaments. If the SEC gets six or seven in, the ACC and Big East five, The Big Ten four – all based on tradition -- then you quickly run out of true at-large teams. LSU and Vanderbilt each won their 20th games in their opening SEC tournament games. They then lost the next one. If both are in, then every SEC team with a winning record within conference is in.

Here’s the real dependable truth: Every year since the NCAA began women’s games, there has been one super team, maybe a close competitor and then all the rest. Baylor this season and last. No one in the SEC approximates that, but that does not mean they cannot win the NCAA.

As there are four Regionals, there will be a Final Four, generally from the other top seeds in the other Regions. You can say the same about Sweet 16 qualifiers: There will be 16 of them. Some of the super schools actually have grown weary of being in the Sweet 16 and no further every year.

Then there’s Stanford, a Final Four team five straight seasons and no title because of that falloff from the super team each season. When coach Tara Vanderveer wins another title, there will be a sigh of relief across the nation.

If this were a men’s program, it would be discussed and celebrated. So far, it is just a footnote for sometimes lazy writers to incorporate in pretournament stories.

Same, to some degree, for the sharing of the national title. There are more one-and-dones than there are championship schools. One national title solidifies a coach’s longevity for as long as she or she wants to stay at the school which won. This is another disconnect from the men’s game.

A National Championship also gets you an invitation to the Women’s College Basketball Hall of Fame. It is not one of that hall’s expressed rules, but it is true all the same, as true as for those who win national honors multiple years as a player.

Selection Monday Process

The committee picks four No. 1 seeds, then a No. 1 of all No. 1s (for some reason; again mostly for newsy notes in stories).

Then they pick four No. 2s, No. 3s and all the way down to the scrawniest puppy in the litter.

Starting at the top, they then assign the No. 1s based on Regional preferences and the No. 2s the same. Which is how Tennessee, UConn and Stanford always end up nearer their fan base.

It is only when they assign 2-4 to Regions that they really pay attention to location (fans base/ticket sales) but moreso to not having a rematch of conference foes before Region finals.

Sometimes, teams want to avoid a super team that has already waxed them and thus they get to go West (the better teams are still mostly East of the Mississippi) or this year and last East (generally, the weakest of the other three Regions) to avoid Baylor for as long as possible.

Yes, they have to beat them if they want to win the title. But UConn and Tennessee each made a Final Four and then stumbled as two top players had been injured in the tournament.

This season, Duke lost its point guard in the final week of February when it was undefeated in the league and won the conference outright the next game.

Tennessee lost its center for the final game at Kentucky and the SEC tournament so she may be done. They are 1-2 without her.

UConn lost its backup point guard to a torn ACL to start February which matters only in those games wherein there is foul trouble to the starter or in the triple-overtime loss at Notre Dame that decided the Big East tournament seed. But all these situations figure in the seasonal finish.

Stanford once had a player with a blown ACL which they did not certify until the day of the first-round game and thus were “upset” in the first round for the only time because most of the points were in street clothes on the bench.

So you seed the 1-4 to Regions and that is basically going to be the Sweet 16.

The sub-Regions have been bought and paid for by host schools. If a Big does not host or have a game within one tank of gas, they might be a marquee team for a site within their Region to bolster ticket sales.

The sub-Regions thus play out as for assignments. It is difficult to argue anything about who is left out. There simply are not 64 worthy teams in America.

So you use unwritten qualifiers like an aged coach who deserves another line in the resume. Or a star player from say, Delaware, that the knowledgeable fan wants to see once at a Regional.

Delaware hosts a sub-Region as it honors its all-time best player so they are likely going to the Sweet 16.

Stanford is also hosting, also on its way to another Sweet 16, as are nationally ranked – all season --- Maryland, Duke and Louisville.

Maybe you have a name school as far the men’s game (Big Ten, SEC) that a casual fan can recognize to gin up ticket sales as well.

Most of the questions used to fill out preview stories after Selection Monday will be of the uninitiated (or those pandering to a fan base) who ask about travel. The student/athlete is generally not a factor and, really, welcomes a short trip to anywhere they have never been before.

The Selection Committee head will use her one moment in the spotlight to go over the idea of avoiding too many conference teams in one Region, avoiding regular-season rematches as often as possible (the same thing). All the while, everyone knows there is the one super team, a couple of other pretenders and this argument about travel is not really anything.

Sometimes, the NCAA has teams not expected to last more than one game check out of the NCAA hotels on game day with a reserved night flight home already booked. If the upset happens, then the team really has no worries as there will be a place to stay (formerly saved for whomever they eliminated) after the celebration.

It even has happened at the Final Four, where the majority of the university traveling party from the semifinal losers is on the bus to the airport as quickly as possible, save the potential all-tournament player of a losing side.

You can bet no NCAA team has ever paid for an extra day’s stay for an entire team. Suddenly, getting “back to class” is important after all. You can be just as sure school presidents, athletic directors and even coaches can stay through the Final Four experience on the university ticket even if they never played the game.

The women’s coaching association has its annual gathering at the Final Four, which is another perk for coaches already eliminated.

But that’s the endgame. Here, at the start, the unknowing of early-round matchups is the thing. The discovery or who is on the starting five of that team with one good player is to be had. Some writers even grouse about travel, not recognizing they have the best job in the world and sound so selfish.

In past years, we would have been through two games by now, but the NCAA works in mysterious ways, its wonder to perform.

Let the games begin. Half of the teams are one-and-done, then half again.

That’s when we’ll know which teams are truly Sweet 16 this year. Chances are you can name the majority of them right now:

The top two SEC hosts and one or more other league teams, then Baylor, Stanford, Delaware, Duke, Maryland, Louisville, Notre Dame and UConn. That’s 14 right there.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


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