The first half of the women’s basketball season produced plenty of memorable moments for mid-major programs.
Chattanooga beat Tennessee and Stanford for its first two wins over top-10 opponents in school history. Princeton is ranked 22nd and Western Kentucky is 25th. Green Bay (11-3) was in the Top 25 earlier this season.
“I think it’s great for the game, for women’s basketball,” Western Kentucky coach Michelle Clark-Heard said. “That’s what we want to have the opportunity to do, to just continue to keep working and building, so … we don’t have to be in a position where we have to win our conference (tournament) to get to the NCAA.”
Mid-major women’s basketball programs historically have struggled to get NCAA bids unless they win their conference tournaments.
Half of the 64 spots in the 2014 tournament went to teams from the so-called Power 5 conferences – the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference. The American Athletic Conference and Big East earned two bids each.
The only teams from outside those conferences to earn at-large invitations were BYU of the West Coast Conference and Dayton and Saint Joseph’s from the Atlantic 10. Bowling Green ended the regular season ranked 25th, but it was left out of the NCAA tournament with a 27-4 record after losing in the Mid-American Conference semifinals.
For comparison’s sake, the Atlantic 10 alone earned six bids in the 2014 men’s tournament.
Princeton knows it will earn an NCAA bid as long as it finishes first in the Ivy League, which doesn’t have a conference tournament. But the other mid-major programs can’t take anything for granted if they fail to win their conference tournaments.
“We want to control our fate,” Green Bay guard Megan Lukan said. “For us that means we win the conference tournament. But if we didn’t, I think we’ve built a pretty good resume. It all depends on the teams we play and their success after we play them.”
The mid-majors that do reach the tournament often don’t get favorable seeds. Middle Tennessee was ranked 22nd at the end the 2013-14 regular season and got a No. 8 seed.
Because they play in conferences that don’t allow the opportunities for many attention-grabbing victories, they must make statements early in the season.
“We’ve spent a lot of time with the various conferences – especially the mid-major conferences – talking to them about what they need to do to put themselves in better position,” said St. John’s associate vice president for athletics Kathy Meehan, a member of the NCAA tournament selection committee. “And I think more of them are paying attention.”
The instructions they’ve been given is to play as demanding a nonconference schedule as possible. Meehan said “it’s very difficult to see how good you are” if a team hasn’t tested itself against tougher competition than it might face within its own conference.
“Some of those teams already – Chattanooga in particular – have shown they can play at another level,” Meehan said.
Chattanooga has beaten four of last season’s NCAA tournament teams: Tennessee, UT Martin, Stanford and South Dakota. Princeton, one of only four remaining unbeaten teams, has its highest ranking in the Top 25 and has double-digit victories at Michigan and Pittsburgh. Green Bay beat No. 18 Arizona State on a neutral court and won at Purdue. Western Kentucky, ranked for the first time since the 1997-98 season, won at Colorado and has lost only to No. 14 Mississippi State and No. 6 Louisville.
“They give you a formula for scheduling,” Chattanooga coach Jim Foster said. “They tell you what you need to do, and we have adhered to that. … We’ve played some very good basketball teams and we’ve had some success against this schedule, and we need to continue to have success.”
Foster had an additional reason for arranging a difficult nonconference schedule. He wanted to make sure Chattanooga was ready for whatever it might face in the NCAA tournament.
The Mocs have fallen in the first round of the last two NCAA tournaments. Their 59-53 loss to Syracuse in last year’s NCAA tournament snapped a 25-game winning streak.
“It’s our time to actually win a game in the NCAA tournament,” Chattanooga forward Destiny Bramblett said.
A number of mid-major programs have shown they’re capable of doing some damage in NCAA tournament — as long as they actually get there.