Does playing in the WNIT help teams?

While almost every women's basketball fan is paying close attention to the NCAA tournament, there are two other post-season tournaments taking place at the same time.  The lesser known of the two is the Women's Basketball Invitational, which started with sixteen teams and will be down to its final four by the end of the day. It must choose among whichever of the 128 teams have not yet received a post-season berth in the other two more prestigious tournaments.  With teams like Chicago State, CS Bakersfield and Elon still in WBI contention, the pickings are very slim indeed.

The other tournament is the Women's National Invitation Touranment (WNIT).  Five years ago, this tournament only chose 40 teams but since 2010 has expanded to an NCAA-sized bracket of 64.  The rules for selection to the WNIT are pretty much the same as the NCAA tournament - each conference receives an automatic bid (in the sense that the WNIT picks the second-best team through its own criteria) and the rest of the qualifiers come from at-large bids. 

Unlike the NCAA, sometimes teams snub a WNIT post-season bid.  C. Vivian Stringer of Rutgers said that the WNIT was a second-best tournament and that as long as she was at Rutgers the Scarlet Knights would never accept an invite.  USC turned down the WNIT several years without giving much explanation before Michael Cooper's team accepted this year after turning down a bid last year.  In one of his final acts as a head coach at LSU, Van Chancellor turned down his bid this year.

What makes the WNIT interesting is that games take place at the higher-ranking team's home.  This might be one of the reasons teams turn down WNIT bids - in addition to the WNIT being a less prestigious tournament - one which eats up classroom and study time - a team might have to play all of its games on the road past a certain point.  Last year California and Miami (FL) duked it out for the championship at California's home court with California walking away 73-61, and having home field advantage in the championship game must have helped.

Or did it?  As Nate Parham wrote, the two teams went in different directions after last year's title game.  This season Miami took a slice of the ACC regular season title and is a #3 seed in this year's NCCA tournament.  California, however, went in a different direction without a true point guard and struggled in conference play.  The Golden Bears find themselves in the WNIT once again, beating Cal Poly 74-60 in the opening round and facing Big Twelve bottom dweller (and future conference foe) Colorado in the next round. (Oddly enough, the men's teams from both schools faced each other in this year's NIT.)

Nate's article led me to ask a question:  does appearing in the WNIT help a team get to the next step, the NCAA's?  One could argue that it does.  It certainly gives up-and-coming teams a taste of the pressures of the post-season.  It gives teams more practice time - if you don't go to the WNIT, you'll probably be more likely to practice calculus or history than rebounding.  It gives teams a future goal to shoot for - "this year the WNIT, next year the real thing!"

On the other hand, teams can go in two different directions.  There are teams on the move-up, but there are teams on the move-down as well.  Maybe it's one year the NCAA, the next the WNIT, and the next...the WBI or nothing at all.  Or maybe the WNIT is the best some teams can do, where they get their head above water before sinking back into mediocrity.

I decided to answer this question for myself.  I looked at the post-season years 2006 through 2011, with attention paid to the 171 schools that participated in the WNIT between 2006 and 2010.  For each of these teams, I wanted to know what happened in the post-season the following year.  There were three possible outcomes:

a)  the team moved from the WNIT one year to the NCAA post-season the next
b)  the team did not make the NCAA tournament but was able to swing another WNIT invite
c)  the team either made the WBI or didn't make the post-season at all


2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Went to NCAA following year 12 17 17 16 15
Went to WNIT following year 13 12 14 19 26
Went to neither following year 15 19 17 13 23
Total # of WNIT teams 40 48 48 48 64

Looking at the numbers, it seems that the probability tells us nothing.  One is just as likely to be in one of those three categories as any of the others - although the probability is about 65 percent that if a team makes the WNIT one year, it should appear in the WNIT or NCAA the next year.  This makes sense, as there isn't much parity in women's basketball - good teams tend to stay at their level longer.

On the other hand, with 64 teams going to the WNIT, there is a smaller proportion of teams going to the NCAA than ever before.  It seems that every year only about 15 WNIT teams get a pass to the NCAA the following year regardless of whether there are 40, 48 or 64 WNIT teams.  These days 144 teams are going to the post-season - and the field for those 15 golden tickets is getting tighter than ever.

Trivia question:  Which teams have the longest current streak of WNIT appearances?
Answer:  Creighton, Florida Gulf Coast, and Kansas.  These three teams have appeared in the 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 WNITs.