The 2014 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament bracket will be announced this evening at 7:00 p.m. EST on ESPN. We know that, for the first time ever, the MAC tournament champion Akron Zips will have their names called. What we don't know is what seed they'll get, who their first opponent will be, and will any other MAC teams join them in the field of 64?
The Zips are 23-9, but in early January, the NCAA Tournament seemed as far away as it possibly could. They stumbled through a 6-5 non-conference season and then began the MAC campaign with a 1-3 record that included a loss to Miami, who eventually finished 4-14 in the MAC. Somehow, a team that began their season 7-8 turned it around to win 16 of their final 17 games, including a school-record 13 in a row. Their team features the 10th- and 13th-best per-game scorers in the country in Hanna Luburgh and Rachel Tecca. They will be a difficult out for anyone they face.
Are the Zips destined to be the MAC's lone representative? That depends on what the tournament selection committee thinks of the two teams that dominated the MAC during the regular season -- Bowling Green and Central Michigan. Those two teams went a combined 33-3 in the MAC, 2-2 against each other and 31-1 against the other 10 teams, and they earned the top two seeds in the MAC tournament. Then, in a flash, both were eliminated in the tournament semifinals without so much as winning a single game.
Central Michigan is currently 20-11 and (according to RealTimeRPI.com) owns an RPI of 40. They also put together one of the most difficult non-conference schedules in the country, and that included games against Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, Notre Dame, Purdue and Dayton (twice). Unfortunately for the Chippewas, they went 4-8 outside of the MAC, and only their buzzer-beating home win over Dayton was truly momentous.
Bowling Green has had one of the best seasons in school history, and with their history, that's saying something. They're currently 27-4, and their only loss in the MAC prior to their defeat in the tournament semifinals was an overtime road loss against Central Michigan. In non-conference play, BGSU was 10-2. They defeated Michigan on a neutral court and Ohio State on the road. They beat the MAAC co-champion Iona on the road. They also won at Butler and manhandled lesser opponents at home. Their only losses were against MAAC tournament champ Marist (27-6) and on the road against 21-8 Purdue. Both of those teams will be in the NCAA Tournament.
The Falcons' strength of schedule overall isn't comparable to CMU's, but their RealTimeRPI is 31. BGSU is 2-3 against teams currently in the RealTimeRPI top 50 and 6-3 against the top 100. However, their MAC tournament loss to Ball State (RPI 128) is a killer.
So, what do the experts say?
ESPN women's bracketologist Charlie Creme says that only Akron gets in. He places them as the #13 seed in the South Bend region against #4 Penn State. The winner of that game would play either #5 Texas or #12 Pennsylvania, and those games would be on Penn State's campus. Bowling Green is listed as fourth in his list of "First Four Out". Central Michigan no longer appears on his page.
CollegeSportsMadness.com released their final projectionn today, and they are more optimistic. They obviously have Akron in the field as a #12 seed against #5 seed Oklahoma State, with either #4 North Carolina or #13 Wichita State as a potential second-round opponent. However, unlike Creme, this site has Bowling Green in the field. The Falcons are listed as a #11 seed, and their initial opponent is projected as #6 seed Syracuse. The Falcons would be projected to play either #3 Texas A&M or #14 Florida Gulf Coast with a first-round win.
RealTimeRPI.com has a projection that is most optimistic of all, as it includes all three MAC teams. This was released on Saturday evening, so it reflects Akron's MAC title game victory. The Zips are placed as a #13 seed against #4 seed Nebraska in the first round. Iowa and James Madison are on the other side of that matchup. Bowling Green is projected as a #9 seed with a first-round opponent of #8 USC. Their possible second-round opponent would be #1 seed Duke. Finally, this bracket calls for CMU to be a #12 seed and face #5 seed DePaul in the first round.
What should we make of these?
ESPN's bracketologists are often accepted as the "creme" of the crop, but they're not infallible. On the men's side of things, for instance, Joe Lunardi had SMU in his final projectiion and five spots above the cut line, but they didn't make the field. Lunardi also had North Carolina State out of the tournament, seven spots away from the cut line, but they are in the field. So, could Creme be wrong about the MAC?
On the other end of the spectrum, it seems like the RealTimeRPI bracket goes too far the other way. Given Crystal Bradford's injury, CMU's final two games, and their overall non-conference performance, it seems exceedingly unlikely that they'll end up in the field. And while we believe that BGSU could still get in, placing them as a #9 seed is probably asking too much.
Right now, the projections of Akron being a #13 seed are probably the most likely ones to come true. Akron's RPI is in the 80s, and the MAC's RPI is 12th among all conferences. However, Akron's non-conference schedule provides no real signature wins, and they might get downgraded for being a first-time tournament team.
As for Bowling Green, we're going to be cautiously optimistic and say that they'll be rewarded for their entire season. If this comes to pass, they'll probably be one of the last four teams in the field and be relegated to a #12 seed.
If Central Michigan stands any chance of getting into the NCAA field of 64, it's exceedingly remote. The far more likely result is that CMU will end up in the Women's NIT. The Women's NIT is a 64-team field (yes, 64 teams) that has been incredibly MAC-friendly in the last four years. The MAC has sent at least three teams to that tourney in each of the last four seasons. In 2011, four MAC teams participated, and last season, there were five in the field of 64.
In addition, the WWomen's Basketball Invitational is a 16-team tournament that will potentially give additional opportunities to MAC teams.
In all, outside of Akron, there are as many as six MAC teams that could get placed in a post-season tournament. Bowling Green and Central Michigan should expect to play in either the NCAA or WNIT. Buffalo, Ball State, Eastern Michigan and Toledo are teams that could end up in either the WNIT or the WBI. If recent history is a good indication, the MAC should have at least four teams playing in a post-season tournament and possibly as many as five or six.
Check back with us throughout the evening, as we'll provide complete coverage as the announcements are made.