Rivalry will add to Madness

February 10, 2009

Adam Minichino - aminichino@cdispatch.com

 

Madness doesn''t officially begin for another month, but it is never too early to start crunching the numbers. 

 

By nearly every indicator, the Mississippi State women''s basketball team has done enough to put itself squarely on the bubble for NCAA tournament consideration. 

 

The Lady Bulldogs could take a huge step toward securing a bid to the NCAAs on Thursday when the travel to Oxford to face archrival Ole Miss (15-9, 4-5 Southeastern Conference). 

 

A victory would move MSU (18-6, 5-4) another step closer to two benchmarks that typically ensure NCAA entry. 

 

And if things play out according to plan, MSU will be favored to win two more SEC games that could push it to 21 victories and give it eight wins in the league. 

 

We''re not even counting what the team could do in the SEC tournament on March 5-8 in North Little Rock, Ark. 

 

Now that you know MSU is close to earning its first NCAA bid since the 2002-03 season, let the fun begin. 

 

All across the Internet, various experts have been tabulating numbers and making their best guesses as to which teams will be in the final field of 64. 

 

According to collegerpi.com, MSU''s victories last week against then-No. 20 Vanderbilt and LSU helped it move from 59th in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) to 42. The Lady Bulldogs also moved from 90th in Strength of Schedule (SOS) to 77. 

 

The RPI and SOS are two factors used by the NCAA tournament selection committee to determine which at-large teams will round out the field after all of the automatic bids are awarded to conference champions. 

 

The committee also will factor in a team''s performance in its last 10 games, its results in its conference tournament, and records against teams in the top 25, 50, 100, and so on. 

 

Now that you have your primer, there also is a subjective element to the equation. 

 

With that said, several SEC coaches were asked how many teams from the conference they think will receive bids to the NCAA tournament. 

 

"The bottom teams have all gotten better and the top teams aren''t as dominating," said Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb, whose team lost to MSU 66-61 on Thursday. "I think you''re going to see even more upsets as this (season) continues. 

 

"I think the Big 12 has so many teams ranked and I think that hurts us this time of year that we don''t have as many teams ranked because we probably didn''t win as many games out of conference to have those programs ranked." 

 

The Big 12 (six) has more teams ranked in this week''s Associated Press Top 25 poll than the SEC (four).  

 

But members of the media -- including myself -- vote on the poll. The coaches have their poll -- the ESPN/USA Today poll -- but neither one will have much of an impact when the selection committee goes to work. 

 

That''s why it''s so much fun to juggle the numbers and to listen to coaches lobby for their teams, or for their conference. 

 

"The bottom has gotten better and the top is young," Balcomb said of the SEC. "We are all kind of all in the middle and we could beat each other up really bad this year." 

 

LSU coach Van Chancellor, whose team lost to MSU for the second time this season Sunday, still thinks many teams have time to decide their fate. 

 

It''s not surprising Chancellor would say that given that his team is 12-9 and 5-4 in the SEC. 

 

The Lady Tigers also are 40th in the RPI and have a SOS that is 12th best in the nation, according to collegerpi.com. 

 

So LSU''s strong RPI and SOS should make it a lock for the NCAA tournament? 

 

Chancellor knows that isn''t the case. 

 

"I think it is what you do the rest of the way," Chancellor said. "I think you have got to have some significant wins. I still have Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee." 

 

MSU has only two victories (LSU) against teams with RPIs in the top 50. The Lady Bulldogs have six victories against teams with RPIs from 50-100. 

 

While they lack a eye-opening victory against a team like Tennessee or Maryland, MSU has the opportunity to change that. It plays host to Auburn, which climbed to No. 5 in this week''s AP poll, on Sunday and it travels on Feb. 22 to Knoxville, Tenn., to face Tennessee. 

 

Victories in either game likely would secure a bid to the NCAA tournament for the Lady Bulldogs, provided they don''t stub their toe and lose to South Carolina or Alabama. 

 

MSU coach Sharon Fanning votes in the ESPN/USA Today poll, so she is familiar with all of the numbers and with which team has defeated another and by how much. 

 

But Fanning has been in this business long enough to know that even when you think you have done enough -- like finishing .500 in the SEC -- sometimes you aren''t invited to March Madness. 

 

Fanning is a little more optimistic this season. Still, she won''t be convinced until she hears her team announced on the NCAA tournament selection show. 

 

"You say a minimum of four a maximum of seven (teams from the SEC will get into the NCAA tournament)," Fanning said. "I am hoping there will be seven or eight on the board. I think there should be in our league. There is a lot of parity nationally, but I think the SEC is a strong league. I think it is strongest in the middle than it has ever been." 

 

The SEC has earned five NCAA bids three of the past four seasons. The league received seven bids0 in 2001-02 and 2003-04.  

 

Seven bids this season might be pushing it, especially with MSU''s sweep of LSU. 

 

A victory by the Lady Bulldogs on Thursday would make seven even less likely. 

 

Don''t you think that is a number MSU would only be too happy to crunch? 

 

Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Commercial Dispatch. He can be reached at aminichino@cdispatch.com.

Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.