Now that the 2018-19 NCAA Division I women’s basketball season has come to a close (congrats to the Baylor Lady Bears on their hard-fought national title), it’s time for us all to take a step back and look at how the sport, as a whole, stepped forward. In doing that, one glaring theme seems to stick out to me.
The gap between the mid-majors and high-majors – or the “Power Fives” – is getting smaller, yet the quality of basketball, as a whole, keeps increasing. Yes, everyone is MOVIN’ ON UP. (I hope you all sang that like the Jefferson’s theme song, because I did.)
Perhaps I notice this more because of my location, my job, and my playing background – or perhaps not. In fact, the whole country is starting to take notice. For those of us following South Dakota State and South Dakota throughout the regular season, we remember the Coyotes’ win over No. 23 (at the time) Iowa State, followed up two games later with a road win against, then, No. 22-ranked Mizzou. We all watched in suspense as SDSU went toe-to-toe with a No.7-ranked Oregon team at Frost Arena. (Don’t worry, I’ll get to the postseason in a bit.) Heck, how about SDSU beating an AP-Top 25 team back on February 24 at Frost? Who was it again? That’s right – the mid-major neighbors to the south, USD.
Rankings. Rankings. Rankings. They’re just numbers, right?
Ask any coach, and they’ll tell you that the rankings mean nothing. They don’t pay attention to them. Honestly, if you’re a mid-major school, you’ve probably learned to not put much stock in having a number next to your team’s name on the score bug because “that just doesn’t happen in the mid-majors.”
Well, now it does.
And as much as coaches will still continue to not focus on if their team is nationally ranked (or not ranked), it feels darn good to have that number next to your team’s name, and it feels darn good to beat teams that have a number next to their name. Why? Because you know there’s meaning behind that number – meaning that’s deeper than your placement on a list of 25 schools. That number is earned. That number puts you in a group with 24 other elite and highly respectable teams. And when you’re a mid-major program, that number doesn’t come around often.
But now let’s get to the best time of the year: March Madness. Rankings are cool and all, but now how do you really stack up? Behold, the NCAA Tournament. It answers a lot of questions (and also leaves us with questions) in just a three-week time span.
Think about these numbers for a second:
- 351 – The number of NCAA DI women’s basketball programs
- 64 – The number of teams that make the Big Dance
- 32 – The number of NCAA DI conferences for women’s hoops (a.k.a. 32 automatic qualifiers) *math*
- 32 – The number of at-large bids available for the (technically) remaining 319 programs
Cue Lloyd Christmas: "So you're saying there's a chance."
To me, the term “chance” implies luck, not necessarily “earning.” I just really wanted to get that Dumb and Dumber quote in there. Is there luck in March Madness? Absolutely. But the field of the 32 at-large teams isn’t drawn out of a hat. It’s selected by a committee.
This year, that committee made a statement. In the 2019 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, there were four mid-major teams that earned at-large bids:
- Gonzaga (28-4, 16-2 WCC*) – RPI: 13 – Earned No. 5 seed – 11th tournament appearance
- Drake (27-6, 1701 MVC*) – RPI: 20 – Earned No. 10 seed – 13th tournament appearance
- Central Michigan (25-7, 15-3 MAC*) – RPI: 32 – Earned No. 8 seed – 5th tournament appearance
- South Dakota (28-5, 14-2 Summit) – RPI: 40 – Earned No. 8 seed – 2nd tournament appearance
* Denotes regular season conference champion
Notice anything? Look a little closer – at the asterisk that isn't next to South Dakota's conference record.
That’s right. The Coyotes were the only mid-major at-large selection who didn’t win their regular season conference title. They were the No. 2 seed in the league tournament. Yet, they impressed the committee enough to show them that they deserved a spot in the prestigious field of 64 (moreso the at-large field of 32), and they got it.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the “madness” that comes with conference tournaments. I’ve experienced the excitement of it, and I’ve experienced the heartache. However, I feel two things are becoming a lot more clear when it comes to looking at mid-majors during the selection process:
- Teams are being rewarded for putting together a tough schedule and doing well against that tough schedule (a.k.a. it’s not a three-game season anymore).
- It’s not a matter of Power Five schools “getting worse” and therefore the mid-majors are “catching up.” No. Teams are simply getting better on all levels due to a variety of factors, and it’s exciting to watch.
Whether you cheer for the Jacks or the Yotes, watching SDSU make the Sweet 16 was something special. I don’t think we realize how lucky we are here in the Dakotas to be able to watch this high level and quality brand of basketball all throughout the season, whether the team is wearing blue or red.
Another example: take a look at Missouri State. They finished second in the MVC regular season behind Drake but upset the Bulldogs in the conference tournament championship. Then they made it to the Sweet 16.
Yes, the Missouri Valley’s “second best” team made it to the Sweet 16.
Now, if you’re still not convinced about mid-majors, let me leave you with this: an article in USA Today published on March 12 of last year, after two mid-major teams (Dayton and Buffalo) earned at-large bids to the Big Dance:
UConn coach Geno Auriemma said the respect for those teams is a step forward in the women's game and he believes mid-major teams will make some noise in this year's tournament.
"I'm glad that they got rewarded and I think it should happen more often," he said. "Who else is in, South Dakota State? Yeah, go ahead and play them and tell me they are a mid-major team. Good luck with that."
The Jackrabbits (26-6), champions of the Summit League, are a No. 8 seed and will face Villanova from the Big East in the Spokane Regional.
"I am watching that game," Auriemma said.
Auriemma knows a little bit about hoops, right? *Jordan shrug* Mid-majors and at-large bids, man.
Two teams last year, four teams this year. Some might think that’s the definition of a “baby step.” All I know is that it’s a step. It’s not small by any means, and it’s in the right direction.