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Why the Atlantic Sun deserves two teams in this year's NCAA tournament

With it getting close to Selection Monday, there's many teams are on the bubble of the NCAA tournament. But there's one conference, Atlantic Sun, that deserves two teams in this year's dance. And one team in particular, Stetson, warrants some consideration for an at-large bid.

Stetson guard Jama Sharp
Stetson guard Jama Sharp
Photo by Jim Hogue/Stetson Athletics

Kennesaw, GA -- Two Saturdays ago, in the quaint community of Cobb County, there was a game between the second and third place teams in a conference, which frankly, deserves to have more than one representative in this year's NCAA tournament.

The quality of play -- and talent on the floor was truly aesthetically pleasing.

Who better than to speak stridently about this, than the team that was one of the participants, Kennesaw State.

After losing to Florida Gulf Coast -- No. 21/24 at the time -- on February 19, the Owls had a quick turnaround and played second-place Stetson. The Owls fought valiantly, but fatigue set in as they lost 70-58.

In a moment of reflection, Kennesaw State's coach - who is in the midst of a remarkable turnaround herself - discussed how the conference she's affiliated with, has now grown exponentially.

"I think the non-conference schedule that the A-Sun teams have played, and won as a whole, is a reflection of the tremendous and rapid growth of the conference," said Owls coach Nitra Perry.

FGCU has traditionally been good, and a well-kept secret, that only a few unfortunate high major teams experienced; but now that they are nationally recognized as a top-25 team, it speaks volumes to the talent level in the conference.

Stetson has also put together several great seasons - and from player 1 through 12 they are as talented as some/many of the teams in the power conferences. Which in my opinion warrants more than one team getting a bid to the NCAA tournament. "

Perry's powerful parlance at the end of her quote spoke volumes: "And from player 1 through 12 they are as talented as some/many of the teams in the power conferences. Which in my opinion warrants more than one team getting a bid to the NCAA tournament."

And before the power-5, big conference, sycophants ask incredulously: Who is Kennesaw State? Well, glad you propositioned that question. The Owls have one of the rising stars in coaching, third-year head coach Nitra Perry. She has guided Kennesaw State from just six wins last year, to 17 wins this year -- a school Division I record.

Simply put: The Owls are nobody's pushover. And the A-Sun opponents they struggled with are the type of teams that would make for intriguing NCAA tournament battles.

Last week, I had a conversation with Val Ackerman -- former WNBA president and now currently the Commissioner of the Big East -- regarding the growth of women's basketball.

One specific question and answer really caught my attention:

Me: What is something that can really draw more interest into the game?

Ackerman: More parity and the success of mid-majors.

Now back to the conversation at hand. That dialogue with Ackerman got me to ponder: Which teams this year deserve to be in the NCAA tournament -- and would cause a true test to teams that aren't apart of the elite echelon of women's basketball?

With the Atlantic Sun's regular season champion, FGCU, essentially a lock for the tournament, what other team should be in line for an at-large bid? One doesn't have to look far or to another conference for the answer.

Stetson, if you aren't familiar with them, boasted a RPI of 39 a week ago and currently sitting at a 42 RPI ranking. That's better than Miami (ACC), West Virginia (Big 12), Georgia (SEC), LSU (SEC) and Arkansas (SEC) who is at No. 44.

Another fascinating observation from today's latest RPI, is that every team from 10-45 is projected to be in the NCAA tournament, except one: the Hatters.

But why?

Let's quickly take an opportunity to shine a microscope on a few of the aforementioned teams: Miami (they'll be discussed in depth later), West Virginia and Arkansas. Both Arkansas and West Virginia are well below .500 in their conference.

The Razorbacks are 6-10 and the Mountaineers are 7-11. In the past 10 years of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament, there has not been one team to garner an at-large bid that was 3 games below .500 in conference play.

Why are these teams seemingly -- or in West Virginia's case being considered -- in the NCAA tournament while the Atlantic Sun's second place team is not even getting a simple glance?

It is a fascinating conundrum. "So why isn't a mid-major conference like the Atlantic Sun getting more attention as a two-bid conference?"

It's pretty straightforward some would say: "The Atlantic Sun isn't that good of a conference."

But that proclamation is a misnomer and lacks justification. As a matter of fact, the A-Sun is very similar to another conference that has had great mid-major teams over the years: the Atlantic 10.

Back three seasons ago, the Atlantic 10 had an RPI of 9 while the Atlantic Sun's RPI was a putrid 29. Fast forward to this year, the Atlantic Sun's RPI is 11, so clearly the conference is not what it used to be -- it's a lot better and is steadily rising.

It's almost as if the Atlantic Sun is not getting any type of respect. The regular season champions, Florida Gulf Coast, are on the nine line for seeding. Even though they are 27-2, ranked No. 20/21 in the polls, have a 17 RPI as of today and are 6-1 against teams in the RPI top-50.

Another interesting variable that the  2011-12 season was akin to this years, in that many mid-majors were having quite the success. Wisconsin-Green Bay was ranked in the top-15 and St. Bonaventure was 19/22 in the polls with a RPI of 16 at season's end (week 17).

Continuing on this tale of the tape, both the Bonnies and FGCU share identical records of 27-2 after week 17. St. Bonaventure's SOS (strength of schedule) was 106, lost in the conference championship tournament game, and they ended up with a No. 5 seed; however, the Eagles -- who have a SOS of 96, 10 spots better than St. Bonaventure's in 2012 -- are projected to be No. 9 seed?

"Brand" names

In the 2/23 bracketology by ESPN's Charlie Crème, who is highly regarded and respected, had teams such as Georgia as the "Next Four out". But why were the Bulldogs still that close to the bubble of getting in?

Outside of their name, and playing the SEC, what had they done to still merit consideration for an at-large bid?

Georgia was on a serious slide, losing eight out of their last nine, which put them at 18-11 overall and a conference record of 6-10. They just recently lost to Auburn -- who was winless in the conference -- by the score of 44-26. And yet, they were still being projected because of brand name, not because of play.

Couple that with the fact that the Bulldogs lost their leading scorer -- on January 28 -- for the year, Shacoree Barbee. However, they were in the discussion if other teams faltered.

In recent recollection, Georgia, has received the valuable at-large bids as they haven't finished near the top of the SEC in quite some time.  In 2011-12 the Bulldogs lost in the first round to Marist, then last year the same scenario presented itself: the Bulldogs against a mid-major. And guess what happened?

They lost to St. Joseph's, another mid-major team that received an at-large bid from the Atlantic 10.

So the sixth through eighth teams, in the Power-5 conferences, are still going to get the nod every time? Are the seventh or eighth place teams this year in the SEC, better than the second-place team in the Atlantic Sun? Do we really need to see marginal teams like Georgia in the tournament flaming out again?

In the past five years, there have been myriad teams from the Power-5 schools who have received at-large bids with an under .500 conference record. Ironically, they haven't done anything of significance in the tournament. Only four schools won at least one game, and no team went further than the Sweet Sixteen.

2011

At the end of the season 2011, the Men's NCAA Tournament Selection show was on for all of America to watch, and something shocking happened: the committee deviated from their status quo, its typical run of the mill, chalk selections -- and actually rewarded mid-majors.

But in the midst of that, most notably, there was one team's selection that caught the ire of many experts and aficionados: VCU.

And the disparagements came like a flood from a tsunami -- they essentially took a blowtorch to the Rams.

Pundits and commentators from all across the landscape of college basketball, scoffed at the idea that VCU -- from the Colonial Athletic Conference at the time -- was good enough to be a part of such a prestigious tournament. In their minds, how can a team with an RPI in the 80's, that played in the CAA -- and had no signature wins be allowed to this exclusive party?

It was beneath the teams from the "elite" conferences, to be subjected to losing a bid to a small school who hadn't impressed others nationally. They didn't even win their conference tournament.

But the committee had to foresight to abandon the antiquated views of many, and they reaped a harvest of one of the most exciting tournaments in its history. When you provide mid-majors a chance, good things might ensue.

Why?

How does this scenario continue coming to fruition year in and year out, it's simple: a lot of major programs won't play the top mid-major programs - even in their state. Like one program in particular, Miami, they have never played one of the dominant mid-major powers in their state, FGCU, during Katie Meier's tenure which started in 2005.

One can understand why, because from her standpoint, why play one of the preeminent mid-major programs in the country, as well as the team, which many say has been the incandescent force in the Atlantic Sun. But, here's another question to be posed: Why won't Miami -- over the course of essentially a decade -- even schedule the Atlantic Sun's other premier program?

It's the Atlantic Sun for goodness sakes, but there might be a reason.

One would surmise that Meier's reluctance to playing Stetson, has everything to do with the probability that she could lose to them as well. Many might juxtapose Miami and the Hatters, and couldn't conceive such a narrative.

But the beauty of sport and competition, is that when two combatants face off, there will be a winner and a loser. Ironically, not too long ago, Miami was forced to play Stetson in last year's WNIT in Miami. And guess what transpired?

Stetson 70, Miami 63.

"I want to give Stetson a ton of credit. They're a sharp basketball team, they won 26 or 27 games for a reason. They've only lost to one team since January." -Miami coach Katie Meier on 3/20/14

Stetson is not some overnight success, fly by night program that just caught lightning in the bottle, they have been successful for quite some time." They have won 20-plus games over the past five years: 20, 23, 24, 27 and 22 games as of today.

This isn't a scenario where the Atlantic Sun needs a mulligan. Without opining, they legitimately deserves two teams to apart of March Madness.

"I'm not one of the decision makers, but I do believe we should in the conversation (for an at-large bid)," said Stetson coach Lynn Bria. "We have a team from our conference that's No. 20 in the nation, and based on our conferences RPI this year, I do believe the Atlantic Sun should be a two-bid league, now."

Coaching veteran Therea Gernatt, former Associate head coach at Florida State and now an ESPN3 color commentator, had this to say: "Stetson's NCAA RPI of 39 this (past) week gives us a good sense of the axiomatic approach to the math involved in inviting teams to the Big Dance.

"Much like a Verizon Wireless commercial with kindergartners sitting around a table, it's not difficult to figure out. You beat a team that continues to beat other teams - or you lost to a team that keeps beating other teams, and you move up, just as Stetson has done. Alright, it's a little more difficult than that, but not by much.

Having been in this great game as a player, coach or consultant for nearly three decades, I don't need mathematical models to tell me the Atlantic Sun deserves two teams in the tournament. In late February, the Stetson Hatters have an NCAA Tournament worthy team. Period."

So hopefully, the committee will continue to show its eclectic mindset, and let a team like Stetson in. Because it would be such a malfeasance if the Atlantic Sun didn't have two teams in the tournament this year.

Mid-majors should be rewarded, not punished. If we are to heighten the game, create new story lines, shouldn't we be progressing and not regressing to the same archaic mentality when it comes to mid-majors? These are the games people want to see, because a lot of these power-5 schools avoid scheduling the mid-majors. Everyone loves David vs. Goliath.

If you want to increase "untapped enthusiasm" for women's basketball, you have to bring new people to the dance.

All things being equal, if it's possible, how can you grow fresh interest in the game when you continue to send the same old teams every year?

Remember those outspoken critics who all clamored about VCU's inclusion into the tournament?

I'm not saying that Stetson is this year's VCU, but what I am articulating, is they deserve the opportunity be in. That's how you create the chance for new excitement. We should put teams in that have the potential to matchup with as many teams as possible, even if they haven't proven it yet. The NCAA Women's tournament is a promotional tool, as much as it is a competitive event.

That's the ONLY way Cinderella can dance, but she has to be invited first.