The Mid-American Conference has not sent two teams to the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament in 16 years, but in 2014, there is a distinct possibility that this streak could finally come to an end.
The Bowling Green Falcons and Central Michigan Chippewas have combined to have two of the best seasons in recent MAC history. The Falcons are 23-3 and owns a true road victory over likely NCAA participant Iona. The Chippewas are 17-9, but don't let that record deceive you -- they played the most difficult non-conference schedule in the country and own a victory over Atlantic 10 power Dayton.
Both teams are 13-1 against MAC opponents, and the losses came against each other. In fact, BGSU and CMU are a combined 24-0 against the rest of the conference, and most of those 24 wins haven't been very close.
So, with less than three weeks left until the NCAA Tournament bracket is revealed, what are the real chances of both Bowling Green and Central Michigan making the field of 64?
First, let's take a look at what others are saying:
ESPN's projected bracket, compiled by Charlie Creme, was most recently updated on Monday. Creme projects Bowling Green to win the MAC's automatic bid, and he places the Falcons in the Lincoln, Neb. regional. BGSU would be the #11 seed and would face the #6 seed Nebraska in the first round in College Station, Texas. The other teams in that sub-regional would be Texas A&M (#3) and Colorado State (#14).
Creme does not have Central Michigan in the field; currently, he projects them as the second team left out of the tournament. In Twitter discussions, Creme indicates that CMU hasn't done anything to hurt itself. It is simply the collateral damage in the improvements to resumes of teams like Minnesota and Oregon State.
College Sports Madness updated their bracket on Sunday and also have Bowling Green projected as the MAC champions. They place Bowling Green as a #13 seed, and the Falcons would face #4 Oklahoma State in the first round. Nebraska (#5) and Oregon State (#12) would also be in the sub-regional. This bracket does not project the venues where the teams will be placed.
Finally, RealTimeRPI.com has a bracket that was updated most recently on Friday (Feb. 21). This bracket is the only one of the three that place both Bowling Green and Central Michigan in the tournament. BGSU is projected as a #10 seed and would face #7 Iowa in the first round, and then would face the winner of a Louisville vs. Hawaii game in the second round. CMU is projected as a #11 seed and would play #6 North Carolina to open the tournament. Their potential second-round opponent would be either Texas A&M or Wright State.
Now that we've seen what others have to say, what does Hustle Belt say?
The first thing we need to do is examine resumes.
As noted, Bowling Green is 23-3. Aside from their loss to Central Michigan, the only other games they've dropped were against Purdue (8th, RPI) and Marist (53rd, RPI). Their one win against a top-50 RPI team was against Central Michigan, but they have three wins against teams ranked 51-100 in the RPI (Michigan, Ohio State, Iona). They also have five wins against teams ranked 101-150 in the RPI, and that includes Akron, Butler and two against Buffalo). In other words, they have no bad losses and some very good wins.
Central Michigan is 17-9, but that record is deceiving. Including their loss to Bowling Green, six of their nine losses are against teams in the top 27 in the current RPI. Three are against teams in the top 10 and five are against teams in the top 17. They also have a loss against RPI #48 South Dakota State. Their worst losses are to Marquette (#104, RPI) and Kansas (#108, RPI).
Unfortunately for the Chippewas, their resume of wins doesn't quite stack up as well as BGSU's. CMU has a win over Bowling Green plus a win over RPI #17 Dayton, but both came at home. The Dayton win came on a buzzer-beater. Their other three non-conference wins were against teams currently ranked 239th or worse in the RPI. Their only other three wins that might be remotely described as good were against Akron (once) and Buffalo (twice). Overall, CMU's schedule is very impressive and doesn't really include any bad losses -- but it's short on great wins.
Neither team should expect to improve their resume much before the MAC tournament. Of the combined eight regular season games left, only Bowling Green's contest with Akron is a game against an RPI top-150 team.
Barring unforeseen upsets in those final regular season games, both teams will get byes to the MAC tournament semi-finals, where they should both face an RPI top-150 team. If both win, they would face each other for the MAC title.
At this point, the only realistic scenario for either team (and particularly for CMU) to make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large is for both teams to finish the regular season 17-1 in the MAC then both win in the MAC tournament semi-finals and face each other in the MAC title game.
It's possible (albeit unlikely) that a close BGSU loss to Akron in the MAC semi-finals might still allow the Falcons to get an at-large bid, but they would be far better off getting to the title game. CMU doesn't have that potential luxury.
Ultimately, this whole debate may come down to what happens elsewhere. Fans of both BGSU and CMU should be rooting for favorites to win other mid-major tournaments and for bubble teams in the power conferences to struggle down the stretch. Regardless of what happens elsewhere, both teams do have a shot. However, Bowling Green's resume is better, so if the MAC and its fans want both teams to get in, perhaps the best result would be for CMU to beat BGSU for the MAC title.
(BGSU fans won't want to hear that, but from the MAC's perspective, it's true.)
Outside of the NCAA Tournament, the Women's NIT has included at least three MAC teams for the past four seasons. The 2014 WNIT should be no different. If either BGSU or CMU fails to get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, they'll be one of the premier teams in the WNIT and would and would have a good chance to do what Toledo did in 2011 -- win the event. Akron and Buffalo should also be included, and both Eastern Michigan and Toledo will receive consideration, as well.