As you may have inferred from our lack of Lady Gaga videos this week, USF's women's basketball team was not chosen for the NCAA Tournament, and will play in the Women's NIT.
USF's ladies have certainly played at an NCAA level the second half of the season. Their only losses in 2014 were to Louisville, which is in the Top 5, and Connecticut, which exists on another plane from the rest of us. The Bulls held UConn to their lowest point total of the year (63), and took Louisville to the wire in the conference tournament. A win in that game might have punched their ticket. Geno Auriemma and Jeff Walz lobbied on USF's behalf, but to no avail. (NOTE: the women's NCAA Tournament is still 64 teams, with no play-in games like the men's tournament has.)
But USF's resume was hurt by a couple bad losses in December, and the lack of a marquee win. The Bulls couldn't finish off Maryland or Middle Tennessee at the Sun Dome, and lost to Clemson and College of Charleston in late December.
These early-season struggles coincided almost exactly with Inga Orekhova's knee injury. She struggled from the field early on, and had to have knee surgery on December 2. Amazingly, she was back in action 12 days later. By the time conference play started, she looked fully recovered, and a deep team had its returning star back. (Sort of the opposite of what happened with the men's team and Anthony Collins.)
USF has won the Women's NIT before, in 2009. They won three road games, including the championship game at Kansas' legendary Phog Allen Fieldhouse, where they held off a huge rally to beat the Jayhawks, 75-72. Of that team, coach Jose Fernandez said "it was almost like they were taking it out on the committee game-by-game." It seems the team is once again taking the NCAA snub as motivation, with leading scorer Courtney Williams going so far as to say they "expect" to win the tournament.
Can they win it all again? Let's take a look at USF's part of the WNIT bracket.
The Women's NIT is a 64-team tournament. Every conference gets an automatic bid, which is given to the league's highest-ranking team that did not make the NCAAs. This creates a field with a similar feel to the big dance. Seeds are not officially assigned, and pairings are geographic in nature, but you can recognize a certain attempt to balance things.
If you rank the women's NIT teams by RPI, USF's opening game vs. North Carolina A&T would be about a 3-vs-14 game. And that's what it feels like when you match up the two teams.
The Aggies went 24-6, but being from a bottom-rung conference, had a very weak strength of schedule. They were blown out by fellow WNIT teams Quinnipiac and George Washington, and MEAC champ Hampton. They do have one creditable result: a win over Stetson back in November. They have a couple traits that bring every underdog hope: a three-point shooter, and a good team defense. Top scorer Tracy King is 37% from beyond the arc, and the team held opponents to 54.4 points per game, fourth-best in the country.
But they also have the flaws of underdogs in March. They're a small team, listing only three players taller than 6-foor-1. USF will be a significant step up in competition level. And, this being the NIT, USF will have home court advantage.
USF should handle the Aggies, but it wouldn't be the biggest blowout in WNIT history. That would be USF's 76-20 laugher against FAU two years ago.
Who would be next? USF's second round opponent would be Stetson, who beat Miami 70-63 on Thursday night. The Bulls beat Stetson 72-68 in the regular season, at the nadir of their season in mid-December. USF would likely host this game as well. But attendance is a factor in hosting throughout the tournament, so if you've read this far, try to get to the Sun Dome to support the team.
If the Bulls can get past NCAT and Stetson, they would face either Villanova or George Washington. (Those two teams have already won their first-round games.) Keeping with the RPI-as-seed theme, Villanova would be the #2 seed in this region. Nova's only common opponent with USF is Temple, whom the Bulls beat three times, but who lost a close one to Villanova 59-58. George Washington is also a dangerous team.
The psuedo-#1 seed in this region is Southern Miss. Like their men's basketball team, they racked up a lot of wins (24) and a high RPI (29th) but the NCAA Tournament selection committee can't seem to find a place for them. Other potential fourth round opponents are Mississippi State, Auburn, and Old Dominion.
The opener vs. North Carolina A&T is Friday at the Sun Dome at 7 PM. Future game times and locations will be announced as the tournament goes on.