Monday, March 16, 2009
Five questions on women's tourney
By Graham Hays ESPN.com
Since there will likely be ample time over the next few weeks to ponder Connecticut's invulnerability, here are five questions on the rest of the women's NCAA tournament bracket.
1. Did the selection committee get it right?
While the committee's task is to come up with the right combination of 64 teams, it's worth remembering that selection is a process more rooted in philosophy than mathematics: There really isn't a right answer, even though most of us act as if there is.
So with that gesture of goodwill out of the way, what the heck was the committee thinking?
Louisville took a hit with a 3-seeding in Baton Rouge.
First, that for which it cannot be blamed. The fact that almost half of the tournament's top 12 seeds -- Oklahoma, Auburn, Stanford, Texas A&M and Louisville -- could all end up playing road games in the second round is unsightly at best. But for the most part, that's a problem beyond the selection process. Iowa, Rutgers, San Diego State, Notre Dame and LSU are essentially what the seeding says they are -- middle-of-the-road teams. And with predetermined first- and second-round sites, the committee was dangling from a rope with a lit match in one hand and a knife in the other.
No matter what it chose, it was going to make mess when the bracket landed.
The obvious exception, and the most puzzling (galling would be another option) aspect of the entire bracket is the decision not only to pass over Louisville as a potential No. 2 seed, but to send the Cardinals to LSU's home court in Baton Rouge instead of at least giving them the consolation prize of a No. 3 seed in Bowling Green. It would seem a team that went 29-2 against every team not named Connecticut deserved a better fate.
Why put Tennessee in Bowling Green? Even from a cynical point of view, it doesn't make sense. Tennessee fans travel as well as any group in the country, so wouldn't they have helped sell more tickets in, say, Los Angeles?
2. What about the little guys?
Even in a year begging for an olive branch with a dearth of major-conference at-large candidates, only Virginia Commonwealth out of the Colonial got so much as a twig.
No offense to Georgia or Michigan State, but did schedules largely devoid of quality wins outside of conferences widely viewed to be, at best, treading water really merit at-large bids at the expense of Bowling Green and Illinois State? Ball State, a team that wasn't as good as Bowling Green over the course of the regular season, scores an upset against the Falcons in the conference title game and gets a No. 12 seed in the big show.
But Bowling Green, with its 15-1 conference record and regular-season title, didn't deserve a No. 11 seed?
Could Georgia go 15-1 in the MAC or could Michigan State go 15-3 in the Missouri Valley? Probably, but so what? Georgia also gets to recruit, travel and train with all the advantages inherent to an SEC athletic department. It had its chance to distinguish itself in both the conference regular season and tournament and didn't do it.
It's not the selection committee's fault that these conferences insist on conference tournaments that serve only to dilute their own product, but every once in a while, it wouldn't hurt to throw the little guys a bone when they earn it over four months.
3. Where is the best place to spend the opening two rounds?
Let's just say this is the first time in my life I needed to find out what the airport code is for Lubbock, Texas (while any variation of "lady" as it relates to sports -- with a possible lifetime exemption for Tennessee -- needs to go the way of pay phones, how fitting that it turns out to be LBB). Sadly, I won't be among the lucky few in attendance at United Spirit Arena, but if the western Texas locals can come to terms with host Texas Tech missing the tournament, they're in for what shapes up as a treat.
For an appetizer, No. 10 TCU squares off against No. 7 South Dakota State, with the Horned Frogs cast in the seemingly awkward role of underdog against America's underdog. South Dakota State's roster is composed entirely of kids from South Dakota-neighboring Minnesota and Iowa and the distant land of Wisconsin. TCU is led by Helena Sverrisdottir, a native of Iceland who ended up in Dallas, in part because the school's summer basketball camp fit her team's schedule when she was growing up.
Appropriately for a game played in a town situated between cattle towns such as Abilene and Amarillo, it could come down to an old-fashioned shootout at 19 paces (plus 9 inches). Both teams shoot the ball often and shoot it well from behind the arc, although South Dakota State's stifling defense may give it the edge.
No. 2 Baylor should get past No. 15 Texas-San Antonio, but even that interlude gives fans a chance to appreciate a small-conference gem in UTSA star Monica Gibbs. The Roadrunners' standout averages 15.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 6.6 assists.
And for the finale, fans will either see South Dakota State attempt to etch its name in postseason lore (earlier than perhaps it should have needed to) or TCU try to score a third shocker after earlier wins against Maryland and California. All against the backdrop of a masterful coaching performance from Kim Mulkey, who guided Baylor to the Big 12 conference tournament without injured star post Danielle Wilson.
4. Which player's star may finally get a chance to shine in the first two rounds?
When it comes to the night sky, shining a spotlight is a good way to ensure the stellar show gets obscured. But it's only with the aid of the NCAA tournament's bright lights that some of college basketball's underrated talents get a chance to escape darkness.
Keep an eye on No. 7 South Dakota State in Raleigh.
Meet Gonzaga's Courtney Vandersloot.
If this were men's basketball, throwing out "Gonzaga" and "No. 12 seed" might set off bells and whistles like three jackpots lining up on a slot machine. But as good as Kelly Graves' program has been in Spokane, it doesn't have quite the NCAA tournament pedigree as the school's men's team. Neither does the 5-12 game hold quite the same iconic status in the women's game, where it's hardly a guaranteed upset.
All the same, the Bulldogs have more than a fighting chance against Xavier in the first round, and Pitt or Montana in the second round, should they be fortunate enough to advance. That has a great deal to do with Vandersloot, only a sophomore but one of the best point guards most fans outside the Pacific Northwest probably haven't seen.
The West Coast Conference Player of the Year, Vandersloot improved her overall field goal percentage from 41.2 percent as a freshman to 47.1 percent as a sophomore, with a corresponding boost from 33 percent to 39.3 percent behind the arc. That was bad news for defenders determined to play off her, hoping not to find themselves looking helplessly as she delivered a no-look transition pass or textbook post entry en route to 7.4 assists per game.
Against a Xavier defense that ranks among national leaders in field goal defense and 3-point defense, she will be a key to creating scoring chances.
5. What's the healthy alternative to chalk?
Let's face it: Chalk is addictive stuff, and I'm as hooked on the bracket juice as anyone.
But there are alternatives.
For purposes of reaching the Final Four in St. Louis, we'll call "chalk" any team on the top three seed lines. And with those 12 teams out of the mix, two sleepers stand out. One is South Dakota State, which has already been discussed above. But it's not because the Jackrabbits are a neat story that they deserved a better seed than the No. 7 they were allotted; it's because there aren't 24 better teams in the country.
As for the other team, I'm taking a flier on Purdue (some would describe that as more of a short step off a tall cliff). The Boilermakers were swept in two games against Michigan State, lost three times against Ohio State and may be looking at beating Texas as their claim to fame. But there's still something here that catches the eye.
In Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton, Jodi Howell and Brittany Rayburn, coach Sharon Versyp has three players who may be peaking at precisely the right time. For Wisdom-Hylton and Howell, that's a matter of coming back from the injuries that cost them part or all of last season. For Rayburn, it's adjusting to the college game as a highly touted freshman who may still have some legs left after averaging just more than 22 minutes a game to this point.
Howell didn't lose any accuracy while increasing her output from behind the arc, shooting 48.6 percent and averaging 1.9 field goals from behind the arc in Big Ten play.
Rayburn averaged 11 points per game over the final 10 games of the regular season and conference tournament, including 20 in the conference title game against Ohio State.
With Howell and Rayburn, the Boilermakers have the outside shooting that was painfully absent last season, when they snuck into the NCAA tournament, knocked off Utah in the first round and bowed out against Tennessee. And with Wisdom-Hylton and Danielle Campbell, they have the kind of interior presence that could cause problems for the likes of North Carolina or Auburn, teams that haven't been consistent on the boards (in the interest of accuracy, neither has Purdue, with a modest plus-2.3 rebounding margin).
Picking a team with Auburn, North Carolina and Rutgers in its half of the bracket in the Oklahoma City regional -- not to mention a tough opening game against No. 11 Charlotte -- is risky. Even if Purdue did take Stanford to overtime and lead Maryland with five minutes to play earlier in the season.
But perhaps it will pay to stray from the chalk line leading to St. Louis.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.