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The WNIT to NCAA Tournament pathway is growing stronger

A look back at recent WNIT champions shows a clear springboard to NCAA Tournament success.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 28 Women’s NIT - Seton Hall at Columbia Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When Seton Hall and South Dakota State meet in the WNIT final today, the winner will earn its first WNIT title, but that won’t be the only benefit. In recent seasons, the champions of this postseason tournament have regularly seen an immediate jump in the program’s success, and oftentimes, a springboard into the NCAA success.

Just take a look at last season’s Final Four, when the Arizona Wildcats made a Cinderella run to the national semifinals. The team’s tournament success didn’t come as a much of a surprise to the Wildcats themselves, though. Arizona obviously had more faith in its own abilities than the rest of the nation, and some of that came from the team’s success in another a single-elimination tournament two years prior, the WNIT.

After the Wildcats’ win in 2019, their best player Aari McDonald was clear about what the direction of the program should be, as she told the local media:

“It’s going to be scary next year, definitely,” McDonald said. “We have a whole summer ahead of us to get better. And then with the incoming talent, we can build something special this year and hopefully make the NCAA Tournament and just make a run and make some noise.”

That NCAA Tournament run was delayed one year thanks to the pandemic, but Arizona made good on that promise — and some — in 2021. The Wildcats even got a chance to host tournament games in 2022, despite an injury-riddled end to the season.

Arizona is just the latest team to build off its WNIT success. A Sweet 16 matchup in the Wichita region this year featured two recent WNIT champs, the South Dakota Coyotes and the Michigan Wolverines.

The 2016 win was a program-defining victory for the Coyotes, as South Dakota was able to bring in Dawn Plitzuweit from Northern Kentucky to coach the team. Plitzuweit guided the Coyotes to two more WNIT berths before breaking through to make the NCAA Tournament in 2019. South Dakota has been a fixture in the tournament since, culminating in the school’s first win this season.

Meanwhile, Michigan won the WNIT in 2017 and hasn’t been back to that invitational since. Coach Kim Barnes Arico led the Wolverines to the NCAA Tournament the next season for the first time with her own recruits, and Michigan has since become a Big Ten powerhouse. The Wolverines made it to the school’s first Sweet 16 in 2021 and the team’s first Elite Eight in 2022.

Even though Arico thought that her squad would qualify for the Big Dance in 2017, that miss ended up being a blessing in disguise, as she told the Associated Press in March:

“That was one of most difficult nights of my life,” she said. “We went on to hang a WNIT banner and that was a turning point for the program.”

Michigan’s Big Ten compatriots have a similar story. The 2018 champion Indiana Hoosiers haven’t missed the NCAA Tournament since capturing the WNIT title four years ago.

Jaelyn Penn, who played four years at Indiana before competing for UCLA as a graduate transfer this season, shared with The Next how that moment was a turning point for the Hoosiers program. Penn was hopeful that the Bruins’ WNIT achievements this season could be a similar launching pad before the team lost in the semifinals Thursday.

“I just know from experience how much it helps the program, how much bigger it is than just ourselves as individuals,” Penn said. “We have that experience, the foundation is set, moving the program forward, the girls coming in next year and how we hold ourselves the years coming from that win. It’s super important for us to go ahead and win this thing and just realize that it’s bigger than us.”

The Bruins also have their own experience of turning a WNIT championship into NCAA Tournament success. In 2015, UCLA won the WNIT with freshmen Jordin Canada and Monique Billings, and that duo made the tournament their next three season, peaking with an Elite Eight appearance as seniors.

Fifth-year senior Natalie Chou said coach Cori Close used a video of the 2015 as motivation for this year’s Bruins as an example of the foundation a WNIT run can set.

“We remembered that Coach Cori said that team and winning that [tournament] really created momentum for the next couple of years. We just want to create and continue the momentum and create that kind of legacy for the next teams.”

It’s worth noting that the WNIT isn’t owned by the NCAA, as the men’s tournament is (one more example of a lack of equality between men’s and women’s basketball!). Schools have to pay to play, so a team’s participation can be an indicator of support from its athletic department. Therefore, it’s hard to determine if future program success results from the experience of playing in the WNIT or from the backing of a school that supports its women’s basketball team.

In this WNIT chicken or egg scenario, it may not matter if financial support comes from postseason success or vice versa; the results are hard to argue with. After seeing the crowds that the WNIT has drawn — even at Columbia, a program that has little basketball history to speak of — it’s clear that there is more than one postseason tournament of importance in the women’s game. Teams that elect not to participate, like Duke in 2022, are missing out on an invaluable atmosphere.

They’re also missing out on a chance to grow their programs in a meaningful way. If recent history is to be predictive, keep an eye on Seton Hall and South Dakota State in the next few NCAA Tournaments. Like the champions that preceded them, their time is coming.

Game Information

WNIT Final: Seton Hall (24-12) vs. South Dakota State (28-9)

When: Saturday, April 2, 2022 at 3 p.m ET

Where: Brookings, SD

How to watch: CBS Sports Network