2012 women's tournament preview

Keisha Gordon had 21 points, nine rebounds, six assists and four steals in the NWC title game against Lewis and Clark. The teams could meet again Saturday.
George Fox athletics photo

If you're a fan of Colby, Rochester or another school whose hopes for an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament were dashed when the field was announced, there isn’t anything in this preview that will make you feel better.

Fans of some schools that made the tournament have other complaints.

Babson fans aren’t happy that the Beavers have to travel to Amherst this weekend. UW-Stevens Point fans can’t be thrilled that the Pointers have two Top 25 opponents in their pod this weekend and no home games to show for winning the toughest conference in the country. Lewis and Clark fans probably foresaw their inclusion in George Fox’s pod given the schools' geographic isolation from the rest of the tournament field. But, if the Bruins beat the Pioneers on Saturday and continue deep into the tournament, the Lewis and Clark fans will at least wonder how far they could have gone if George Fox didn’t keep getting in the way.

Setting those complaints aside, there are two pods that seem unrelated at first but actually show how hard the committee worked to put together a good bracket.

Take a look at the pod of four teams who will play at George Fox this weekend. Now look at the pod of four teams who will play at Tufts on the other side of the country. It would’ve been very easy for the committee to switch those two pods. Let the Tufts pod stay in the bracket with three other East coast pods. Let the George Fox pod fly to whichever Midwestern school gets to host next weekend instead of flying to the East coast. That probably would have saved a flight and some money. But it would have cost the bracket competitive balance.

Instead the committee did the right thing. It moved George Fox into the bracket with Mary Washington to make that bracket stronger. The committee didn’t try to spread the four undefeated teams across four brackets, despite the temptation to do so since the four teams aren’t geographically close to each other. The committee basically committed to flying the winner of the Tufts pod somewhere next weekend when it didn’t have to. But let’s forget mileage, travel costs and other logistical issues that the selection committee has to consider but we, as sports fans, would rather not.

We could have undefeated Amherst could meet undefeated George Fox in the semifinals. We could see Mary Washington’s stifling defense square off with Kean’s up-tempo style. The WIAC correctly gets four teams in the playoffs and, however many win, none will play each other this weekend. We'lll have great games at Calvin, DePauw and Chicago this weekend and we’ll also get great games at whatever school hosts the regional next weekend. Some pods are tougher than others, but there is no pod of death this year.

To preview that action, let’s look at each of the four brackets. For each bracket, I’ll pick a champion, a team that could disappoint and a Cinderella team that ideally can win two games on someone else's floor. I’ll pose a big question in each bracket that goes beyond which team will win a particular game. I’ll offer a first round toss up that could go either way. And I’ll toss out a marquee matchup that would provide fun story lines in later rounds.

The Amherst bracket

St. Joseph’s, Bklyn. (13-13) at Amherst (27-0); Babson (25-2) vs. Bridgewater State (19-7)
Castleton State (22-5) at Juniata (25-2); St. Vincent (22-6) vs. York, Pa. (22-5)
Baruch (19-9) at Rhode Island College (24-3); Hartwick (22-5) vs. Emmanuel (22-6)
Oneonta State (19-8) at King’s (22-5); William Paterson (25-2) vs. Salve Regina (19-9)

Big question: Amherst’s coaches might want to look away for a second. Because, for the third year in a row, the big question here is whether anyone can finish within 10 points of the Lord Jeffs. Amherst only had one NCAA Tournament game with a single-digit margin of victory last year and it was the national championship. Of course, G.P. Gromacki’s team won’t take anything for granted and they may wince at the notion that they could cruise to the Final Four. But Amherst’s recent postseason results against Babson and their 23 point win over Kean (who played William Paterson closely) make the Lord Jeffs prohibitive favorites again.

Toss-up: The matchup between York (Pa.) and St. Vincent is hard to pick because the Spartans are hard to gauge. York (Pa.) lost all three games against Mary Washington, but so did everyone else who played the Eagles. The Spartans won all their other CAC games, but more than half the Conference had a losing record. Whether York wins hinges on whether sophomore forwards Kristen Haley and Brittany Hicks can counter preseason All-American Brittany Sedlock and frontcourt partner Devin McGrath.

Marquee matchup: It would be fitting for Babson’s terrific trio – Kathleen King, Nicki Wurdeman and Sarah Collins – to get one more shot at Amherst in the Elite Eight. That’s where the Lord Jeffs knocked the Beavers out of the past two NCAA Tournaments. This time Babson and Amherst would meet in the second round. It’s the last go-round for seniors King and Wurdeman and Amherst isn’t as deep at forward as last year. Is that enough to close the 19-point gap that separated the Lord Jeffs from Babson last year?

Cinderella story: William Paterson should win both games this weekend, but the Pioneers are only playing away from home because the men’s program gets hosting priority in the first two rounds. Emmanuel has already beat sectional host Rhode Island College back on Dec. 1. No other road team looks likely to win both games this weekend, though St. Vincent or York (Pa.) could do it at Juniata.

Most likely to disappoint: Only two sectional hosts would be the clear favorite in their second round game – Amherst and Juniata. The Eagles, whose best win came three months ago against St. Vincent, is far more vulnerable than the defending national champions.

Champion: If the Amherst coaches stopped reading at my suggestion above, they can rejoin us now. And they are the pick to win the bracket again.

The Mary Washington bracket

Keuka (20-5) at Mary Washington (27-0); Messiah (21-5) vs. Kean (22-5)
Vassar (18-9) at Lebanon Valley (24-30); Mount St. Mary (24-3) vs. Gwynedd-Mercy (20-7)
Elms (20-8) at Ithaca (23-4); Southern Maine (21-6) vs. Bowdoin (19-7)
Cal Lutheran (18-9) at George Fox (27-0); Lewis and Clark (24-3) vs. Concordia, Texas (23-4)

Big question: Is this actually the George Fox bracket? Which undefeated team is the higher seed, if there are seeds at all? It probably doesn’t matter since George Fox is likely to fly east next weekend, higher seed or not. So let’s go with a different George Fox question. How will the Bruins’ opponents match up with All-American Hannah Munger, George Fox’s 6-5 post player? There may not be another player with that amount of size and talent in this bracket. So it will be interesting to see how opposing coaches handle the unique challenge.

Toss-up: Southern Maine beat Bowdoin 63-49 when the Huskies hosted the Polar Bears in November. It was the Huskies’ first win over their in-state rival since 2008. This time they will meet on a neutral court. Bowdoin’s starters, except for Jill Henrikson, really struggled in the November matchup. They shot just 26 percent (7-for-27). If the Polar Bears shoot better, this is a total toss-up.

Marquee matchup: Mary Washington versus George Fox would be the first battle of highly ranked undefeated teams in the NCAA Tournament in a while. A game between one of the NWC schools and one of the Maine schools would feature two schools that are more than 3,000 miles apart, certainly a rarity in Division III.

Cinderella story: The Kean Cougars have overcome adversity to get to this point. Emily Cristaldi, who was the 2011 NJAC rookie of the year, did not return for this season. The university removed long-time head coach Michele Sharpe during the season. Both departures are related to the ongoing NCAA investigation of the program’s alleged infractions last year. Separate of that, the Cougars have played for a stretch without Brittany Powell, one of their top scorers.  She’s day-to-day for this weekend’s games after missing the NJAC championship game last Friday. Imagine if, after all that’s happened this sesaon, the Cougars went on the road and beat undefeated Mary Washington.

Most likely to disappoint: In one sense, Mary Washington has already done more than expected. The Eagles started the season buried in the “Others receiving votes” category of our Preseason Top 25 poll and they have had a great run, wherever it ends. But expectations change when you’re an undefeated team ranked in Top 10. According to the national rankings, George Fox and Lewis and Clark are the only teams in this pod who “should” beat Mary Washington. Losing to anyone else, particularly if it happens this weekend, would be a disappointment.

Champion: It’s no fun to just pick the favorites to advance.  The prior categories hint at an upset that I’ll predicted directly here – Kean beats Mary Washington this Saturday. And George Fox beats whoever is left next Saturday.

The DePauw bracket

Westminster, Mo. (22-4) at DePauw (26-1); UW-Whitewater (22-6) vs. Carthage (20-7)
Guilford (22-6) at Centre (24-3); Washington U. (20-5) vs. Ferrum (23-5)
Louisiana College (24-4) at Thomas More (24-4); Illinois Wesleyan (22-5) vs. Maryville (21-6)
La Roche (22-5) at Mount Union (26-1); Muhlenberg (22-5) vs. Catholic (22-5)

Big question: How well does a tough conference schedule prepare a team for the NCAA tournament? Along with Mount Union, DePauw has the best record in the bracket and no one can question the Tigers’ non-conference slate, which has wins over Washington U. and Illinois Wesleyan. But DePauw’s new conference didn’t offer much resistance.  Contrast that with UW-Whitewater which plays in a conference that put four teams in the NCAA tournament.  Does slugging your way through a tough conference make you battle-tested for the NCAA tournament? Or does it just wear a team down for the stretch run?

Toss-up: Carthage versus UW-Whitewater is one of the tournament’s best first round games. The Lady Reds have two talented forwards, Diana Jacklin and Cailee Corcoran, who can create matchup challenges by bringing different talents to the floor. Plus Carthage already beat one ranked WIAC team on a neutral floor this season when the Lady Reds topped UW-River Falls at the D3hoops Classic. On the other side, the Warhawks have won every game so far in 2012 except two against UW-Stevens Point. And UW-Whitewater has a win against Illinois Wesleyan, which beat Carthage three times.

Marquee matchup: DePauw could see two familiar foes on its way to the Final Four. In the Sweet 16, the Tigers could play Washington U., whom they beat by 12 in St. Louis. Then, if Illinois Wesleyan advances to the Elite 8, the Tigers would face another team they beat by double-digits in November.

Cinderella story: Illinois Wesleyan is the highest ranked team in the Thomas More sectional, but the Titans had to overcome a 3-4 start.  Six of those seven opponents made the NCAA tournament. Plus the Titans graduated several key players off last year’s Final Four team. Instead of folding after the tough start, the Titans fought through the CCIW with one loss. Winning two games this weekend would not really be a surprise. But winning two more next weekend would be and the Titans can pull that off.

Most likely to disappoint: Thomas More gets great crowds at the Connor Convocation Center and those crowds have watched the Saints get eliminated at home three of the last four years. Of all the host teams, Thomas More has the two toughest games in No. 25 Louisiana College and potentially No. 16 Illinois Wesleyan.  The Saints also have the toughest first round draw of the four host seeds.

Champion: There are at least six teams with a puncher’s chance to advance out of this bracket. DePauw will play at least one of them on its own floor on Saturday and then could host three more next weekend. Even if the Tigers don’t host the regional rounds next weekend, they’ve shown they can beat Washington U. and Illinois Wesleyan away from Indiana. Based on those results and coach Kris Huffman’s demonstrated ability to lead DePauw to the Final Four, the Tigers are slight favorites in a very balanced bracket.

The Chicago Bracket

Monmouth (16-9) at Chicago (25-0); Simpson (21-6) vs. UW-Eau Claire (20-6)
Wisconsin Lutheran (24-4) at Calvin (25-1); UW-Stevens Point (23-4) vs. Franklin (25-2)
Martin Luther (20-7) at St. Thomas (26-1); Coe (20-7) vs. UW-River Falls (21-6)
Misericordia (17-10) at Tufts (21-6); Johns Hopkins (23-4) vs. University of New England (22-5)

Big question: How many WIAC teams will be playing next weekend? If you use the national rankings to predict winners, the answer is zero. If you believe in the power of home court, the answer is still zero. If you pick a number other than zero, then you have to decide which highly ranked opponent is going to lose to a WIAC team on its own floor.

Toss-up: Johns Hopkins has been in and out of the Top 25, unlike first round opponent, the University of New England. But the Nor’easters – in addition to having a really cool nickname - have some pretty good wins on their resume.  Add in the relative benefit to UNE of playing this game in Massachusetts and Hopkins’ puzzling loses to McDaniel (11-14) and Haverford (12-8 in conference), and this is a toss-up.

Marquee matchup: Chicago and Calvin aren’t locks to advance through this weekend, but if they did, it would create a fascinating rematch from last year’s NCAA Tournament. After Chicago beat Calvin 67-62 last year, both teams have had tremendous seasons. How much have the two teams grown since that game has played? Who would have the upper hand between Chicago’s Taylor Simpson and Calvin’s Carissa Verkaik?

Cinderella story: Winning the WIAC and being ranked No. 11 in the country means Cinderella's shoe doesn't comfortably fit UW-Stevens Point.  But the Pointers would probably have to beat three Top 15 teams on a neutral or hostile court just to make it through the first three rounds of the tournament.

Most likely to disappoint: St. Thomas enters the tournament on a 26-game winning streak, the fourth longest in the country.  But it’s hard to ignore that 17-point loss to Stevens Point in the season opener, particularly since there isn’t a signature win on the Tommies’ schedule to balance it out.  Maybe the season opening loss was a complete aberration for St. Thomas.  It was definitely played a long time ago and the Tommies have had a lot of time to improve since November 16.  But that result feels like a cautionary note that St. Thomas is going to find the NCAA tournament much, much tougher than the regular season.

Champion: Whoever is left standing in the Elite 8 between the winners of the Chicago and Calvin pods. It’s tempting to take UW-Stevens Point or even UW-Eau Claire given the WIAC’s strength. But neither team is a lock to win its first round games. Plus Chicago’s undefeated run through a good non-conference season and a tough UAA schedule makes the Maroons favorites in a very entertaining bracket.

At the Final Four

Amherst vs. George Fox. DePauw vs. Chicago. Either one would be a great national championship game. Part of me thinks that this is Chicago's year. But another part of me thinks I shouldn't pick a national champion that could very well be finished by next Friday night. My Top 25 ballot says I can't pick against Amherst. So I'll go Amherst over George Fox, Chicago over DePauw and Amherst over Chicago for a repeat title.