Our women's tournament preview

Photo by Scott Presley, d3photography.com

By Gordon Mann

Five of the last seven national champions in women's Division III basketball finished the season undefeated, including the last two (DePauw and FDU-Florham). There's a chance it'll happen again this year with four highly ranked undefeated teams entering the NCAA Tournament that starts on Friday night.

Those four undefeated teams won't be the final four teams in the bracket because they are grouped in two brackets. George Fox and St. Thomas are in the upper left bracket while Thomas More and Calvin are in the lower right. With the geographic and financial constraints that the NCAA tournament committee faced, it would've been very tough to build four brackets around those four undefeated teams.

It also might not have been the right thing to do from a pure seeding standpoint. There are a lot of teams beyond those four that could win the national championship. While the NESCAC teams get a disproprotionate share of hosting opportunities relative to the other power conferences, Tufts is deserving of a top seed this year if you consider the number of games they played and won against regionally ranked opponents. According to the selection criteria, the NESCAC had three teams receive at-large bids and Tufts went 5-0 against them.

We also have the defending national champs at FDU-Florham; programs with national champion pedigree like Amherst, DePauw and Washington U; and teams like NYU, Puget Sound and Wheaton (Ill.) that compiled impressive records in power conferences. All in all, the committee did a good job building balanced brackets, considering the logistical limitations they face. So let's take a closer look at each of them.

This year's preview follows the same format as prior years. As usual, there’s a first round toss-up, a Cinderella, a potential disappointment, a predicted winner for each bracket and a bonus big picture story line.

Cinderella is a team that could win two games on the road in the first weekend. Depending on how you look at it, the potential disappointment is either a team that won’t live up to its national ranking, or a team that will go the Final Four and make me look like a doof. Just ask FDU-Florham, DePauw and Amherst which won national championships when I picked them as potential disappointments.

George Fox will likely have to beat Puget Sound a fourth time to keep its undefeated season going.
Photo by Scott Presley, d3photography.com

George Fox Bracket (Upper left)

Penn State-Abington (22-5) at George Fox (27-0); Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (24-3) vs. Puget Sound (23-4)
Rhodes (20-8) at Texas-Dallas (24-4); Southwestern (15-12) vs. Texas-Tyler (24-4)
Baldwin Wallace (22-6) at Calvin (27-0); UW-Oshkosh (22-6) vs. North Central (Ill.) (22-5)
Hanover (19-8) at DePauw (24-2); John Carroll (22-4) vs. Maryville (25-3)

First round toss-up: John Carroll versus Maryville on a neutral court is a toss-up, but let's focus on the most entertaining first round game in this bracket between run-and-gun North Central and road-grater UW-Oshkosh. North Central runs the same “System” as Grinnell men's basketball, with extremely short possessions that disproportionately end in three point attempts. More than half of the Cardinals' field goal attempts this year are threes and they average 14 made threes per game. Contrast that with UW-Oshkosh which attempts 14 threes per game and makes four. The Cardinals average 93.0 points per game, tops in Division III women's hoops. Oshkosh gave up 53.5 per game, the lowest opponent total in the tough-and-tumble WIAC. This contrast in styles should be fun to watch.

Possible Cinderella:
According to the national rankings, Texas-Tyler should win both games this weekend, and the Patriots could beat Texas-Dallas on Saturday night, if the Comets get past Rhodes. That's not really an upset, especially since the road teams have won all three matchups this season. The bigger Cinderella story would be Puget Sound beating George Fox in their gym after losing to the Bruins three times already this year. I don’t think that will happen (keep reading) but it could.

Possible disappointment: On the opposite side of every potential Cinderella is a team that potentially turns into a pumpkin by midnight Saturday local time. George Fox would certainly be disappointed if they don’t advance, but I don't think that will happen (again, keep reading). DePauw is the pick here. The Tigers were ranked ninth in the preseason, just as they are now. By the national rankings, they should at least reach at least the Sweet 16. But the Tigers had closer games than they normally do down the stretch before losing at home to 15-13 Ohio Wesleyan in the NCAC semifinals. They look vulnerable.

Bonus story line:
Calvin has a chance to win a national championship in front of its home crowd, which hasn’t happened in Division III women’s basketball since NYU did in 1997. Back then one of the national semifinalists was guaranteed to host the last weekend, so it wasn’t unusual. In 1999 the NCAA moved the Final Four to predetermined “neutral sites,” and no host team has even reached the title game.  Illinois Wesleyan came closest when it hosted the Final Four in 2010 and finished fourth.   Calvin’s archrival Hope also had a good chance to win a title in front of the home crowd in 2009. But they lost to undefeated George Fox in the Elite 8.  Coincidentally George Fox is undefeated again and looms as a potential Elite 8 opponent.

Twice George Fox has entered the NCAA tournament with an undefeated record (2009 and 2012) and twice the Bruins reached the final four. Make it three times: George Fox beats Calvin in the Elite 8.

As long as Montclair State gets to wear its home whites, the Red Hawks are the pick to win this bracket.

Montclair State Bracket (Lower Left)

Regis (Mass.) (22-5) at Montclair State (26-1); Williams (20-6) vs. Stevenson (23-3)
Babson (20-8) at Bowdoin (23-4); Mount St. Vincent (22-5) vs. Ithaca (22-5)
Bridgewater State (16-10) at Salisbury (25-2); McDaniel (24-3) vs. Stockton (21-6)
Virginia Wesleyan (19-9) at NYU (21-4); Eastern (22-5) vs. Amherst (23-3)

First round toss-up:
Earlier this season Eastern put itself on the national radar by beating nationally ranked Williams on a neutral court. Now they have a chance to beat the other half of that famous rivalry when the Eagles play Amherst on Friday night.  The bonus story line is the battle of two “Megans”.  Eastern is led by Meghan Nowak, who was the National Rookie of the Year in 2011. She’s a special athletic talent. A couple weeks ago at DeSales I saw her contest a three pointer at the top of the key, whirl around, run to the rim past a couple players and grab the rebound. Amherst’s Megan Robertson is a three-time preseason All-American who lost parts of her junior and senior seasons to injury. She was a freshman on the Lord Jeff’s national title winner in 2012, so this is her last chance to win one more national championship.

Possible Cinderella:
Ithaca has beaten ranked NESCAC teams in prior NCAA tournaments (Amherst in 2014) or come very close to doing so (Williams in 2013, Tufts in 2014). The Bombers are always really scrappy, so it's tempting to take them over Bowdoin, who lost in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament last season. But I'll go with Amherst to beat NYU on Saturday night. The Lord Jeffs aren't as strong as they were a couple seasons ago, but size matters in the NCAA tournament and the Violets don't have as much of it in their backcourt.  See how there's bulletin board material for both teams? Equal opportunity motivator.

Possible disappointment:
The players and coaches at Regis must've been bummed when they saw they're paired with Montclair State in the first round for the third straight season.  Maybe the seeding just worked out that way, but it would be nice if the Pride and Red Hawks could get a little first round variety since there are so many teams near both of them. Sticking by the rules of the game, though, we need a host team that could lose this weekend, and that’s all of them except Montclair. Stockton has a nice blend of veteran guards and interior post play with NJAC Rookie of the Year Sasha Williams. She'll be a matchup problem for McDaniel on Friday and Salisbury on Saturday, if the Ospreys get that far.

Bonus story line:
Last year we had a de facto East versus West national title game because the two brackets with lots of east coast teams were paired against each other.  Geography-based matchups are an unfortunate fact of life as a Division III team – cut to video of NWC teams nodding vigorously -- and the three main games at last year’s Final Four were all competitive, so there was no real harm done. But it's nice that we’ll get two East-West matchups at this year's Final Four.  Most teams have to fly to Grand Rapids, so there’s no additional cost to switching the matchups.

Prediction: Assuming that Montclair State can host the second weekend of the tournament, Panzer Gymnasium is a tough place for road teams to win. Stockton did it earlier this year, and they could get another chance if they have a long Cinderella run to the Elite 8. Last year the Red Hawks went on the road and lost to FDU-Florham in the Elite 8. This time they’ll get to cut down the nets in their own gym.

The defending champs at FDU-Florham are dangerous when they hit the glass and swarm on defense.
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com

Tufts Bracket (Upper Right)

Pine Manor (13-9) at Tufts (26-1); Skidmore (17-10) vs. St. John Fisher (21-6)
Eastern Connecticut (20-8) at Scranton (24-3); Baruch (24-4) vs. Stevens (22-4)
Johnson & Wales (19-9) at FDU-Florham (26-1); Catholic (19-8) vs. University of New England (23-5)
Castleton State (23-4) at Geneseo State (23-4); Muhlenberg (20-7) vs. Cabrini (24-3)

First round toss-up:  It’s tough to get a good read on the University of New England. The Nor’easters had a nice showing in last year’s NCAA tournament, beating NYU and pushing Tufts to the brink. That earned them a spot in the preseason Top 25, which is a rarity for teams in their conference. Early this season they played Tufts closely and beat Bowdoin, and those two teams finished atop one of Division III’s best conferences. So how did UNE then lose to Bates, which finished 1-9 in the NESCAC and Endicott, which finished below .500?  You could ask similar questions about the Nor’easters first round opponent, Catholic. The Cardinals beat No. 15 Scranton twice (good) but had five losses in conference (a little puzzling). Put these teams on a neutral court and this is a toss-up.

Possible Cinderella: None, unless you consider Cabrini a Cinderella. The Cavaliers are the only ranked team in their pod this weekend. Last year they showed they can win NCAA tournament games. This year they showed they can beat nationally ranked teams (37-35 W over Scranton) or come extremely close to doing so (56-55 L vs No. 1 Thomas More). They are probably the favorite to advance through a very even foursome in Upstate New York.

Possible disappointment: Scranton arguably has the most impressive regular season win this year. The top six teams in the country have two losses total between them.  FDU-Florham lost to Eastern, which is covered more below, and Tufts lost to Scranton. Beating Tufts was arguably more impressive since the Royals won by 10 on a neutral court. That win shows Scranton's ceiling. They could win this bracket. But, if their offense goes cold like it did in the losses to Cabrini (35 points) or Catholic (42 and 51 points), they could lose to an energeic, dangerous Baruch squad on Saturday night.

Bonus story line: Lots of interesting potential rematches here.  Maybe Scranton versus Tufts in the rematch of their regular season showdown. Maybe FDU-Florham versus Tufts in a rematch from last year’s national semifinal. Maybe both.

Prediction: Unlike last year, FDU-Florham enters this year’s tournament with a blemish on its record. The Devils lost to Eastern by one in overtime on the road in a game where two starters did not play in the first half. Some people around the Freedom Conference thought that loss would make the Devils more dangerous the rest of the season, even if it’s the difference between them hosting or travelling next weekend. If there was any chance that the Devils would be little complacent entering the tournament, that’s gone. The Devils find another gear when they need it. They’ve found it and they’ll need it to get through a tough bracket.

Thomas More and Sydney Moss have unfinished business after an injury derailed their tournament run last season.

Thomas More Bracket (Lower right)

Greensboro (24-4) at Thomas More (27-0); La Roche (22-5) vs. Eastern Mennonite (22-4)
Spalding (22-4) at Washington U. (23-2); Wittenberg (23-6) vs. Transylvania (25-2)
Minnesota-Morris (16-11) at St. Thomas (27-0); Luther (22-5) vs. St. Norbert (22-3)
Wisconsin Lutheran (24-4) at Wheaton (Ill.) (24-3); Bethel (21-6) vs. Hope (23-4)

First round toss-up:
All four of the neutral court games look even. Let’s set Hope and Bethel aside for a moment and restate these matchups in terms of the conferences’ records in the last 10 NCAA tournaments.

AMCC (3-11) vs. ODAC (13-14, but 2-10 since 2008
NCAC (12-9, but 2-7 for everyone but DePauw) vs. HCAC (2-12)
IIAC (14-14) vs. MWC (7-11)

Possible Cinderella: Given the performance and pedigree of Thomas More, Washington U and St. Thomas, it's tough to see those teams losing on their own floor this weekend. So that leaves us with Wheaton's pod where Bethel or Hope could win two games this weekend. Bethel is the better Cinderella candidate in terms of storyline.  The Royals may have been the last team selected in the tournament and they haven't been in the Big Dance since 1997.

Possible disappointment: There are a lot of Division III programs that would trade places with Hope in an instant. They'd gladly take the 23-4 record, the top-notch coaching staff, the incredible facility and the enthusiastic community support and wouldn't feel anything close to disappointment. Still, it feels like it's been a relatively rough year for Hope, at least in comparison to archrival Calvin. On the men’s side, Calvin enjoyed a thrilling MIAA tournament victory at Hope's expense. On the women's side Calvin went 27-0 with three of those wins over Hope. And now the Flying Dutch have the hardest first round draw in this bracket. If they win, they'll likely have to play a Top 10 team on their floor in the second round, much like last year when Hope went undefeated and got shipped to Carthage. If Calvin has a deep tournament run without leaving its gym and Hope gets bounced in the first weekend, wouldn't that be pretty disappointing from Hope’s perspective?

Bonus story line: Speaking of disappointment, Thomas More has a chance to bury the disappointing end to last season. Last year the Saints plowed through the regular season, entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 team in the country, blitzed their first two NCAA tournament opponents and beat a good Texas-Tyler team by 12 in the Sweet 16. Then Sydney Moss, who ended up as the National Player of the Year, got hurt in the first half of the Saints' game at Whitman in the Elite 8 and Thomas More understandably couldn't recover. This is Thomas More's chance at redemption. The Saints' stellar performance to date is nice, but it's not new. Thomas More has entered the NCAA tournament with one loss or fewer in four of the last five years. Can the Saints finish their ascension to new heights?

Prediction: Yes. Thomas More beats St. Thomas and gets the Final Four appearance they just missed last year.

Final Four prediction

My record predicting Final Four candidates is so poor that predicting the national champion feels like an exercise in presumptive futility. But let's go all the way out on the limb and give it a try.

With the advances in streaming video technology and its more prevalant use in Division III athletics, I've been able to watch more games this year than before. Midway through the year I saw a team with a scary blend of athleticism and effort. On offense, they can use their pressing defense to create easy scoring opportunites. They have players who aren't afraid to take a three when they need it. 

They are even more impressive on defense, with long-armed guards to clog passing lanes and quick feet that avoid blocking fouls. In a game a couple weeks ago this team was trailing a ranked rival on the road, in front of an energized crowd, with an undefeated record on the line. Despite the deficit, one of their guards buried a deep three, late in the shot clock. And then one of their post players came out to the top of the key to block a shot, ran past the opposing team's guard to collect the loose ball and drove to the rim for two.

At that moment George Fox became the number one team in my mind, and they still are. So I'll pick the Bruins to beat Montclair State in the national semifinals and then top Thomas More in the national championship game.