March 12, 2016 7:57:01 PM
It appears to be a number's game at this point for the Mississippi State women's basketball team.
Problem is, there are so many numbers to examine and just as many ways you can turn them that it is difficult to know whose numbers are the ones to follow.
At 6 p.m. Monday, all of the numbers will crystallize when the NCAA women's basketball tournament selection committee announces the 64-team field for this year's event. There's no doubt that coach Vic Schaefer and the Bulldogs (26-7) will be dancing for the second-consecutive season. No one in Starkville has doubted that fact for much of the season, especially after MSU tied Texas A&M for second in the Southeastern Conference regular-season standings with 11 victories.
The primary point of contention for the past few months has been where MSU will be seeded. A year ago, MSU missed a chance to play host to the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament and was shipped to Durham, North Carolina, where it lost to host Duke in the second round.
This season, MSU looks to be heading down a similar path. With a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 24, according to the NCAA, and a Strength of Schedule (SOS) of 64, according to RealTimeRPI.com, MSU is in a mix of six teams for place in the top 16. Those 16 teams will play host to the first and second rounds of the tournament.
Syracuse, Texas A&M, Florida State, Stanford, and DePaul are the other candidates that likely will be seeded No. 4 or No. 5 on Monday night when the field is announced on ESPN. Only DePaul (29) has a higher RPI than MSU. The Bulldogs' SOS of 64 is the lowest of the six teams. DePaul (45) has the next closest SOS.
The NCAA tournament selection committee likely will put a lot of stock into those two statistics. MSU's rank (No. 15) in The Associated Press or the USA Today Coaches poll (14) won't be considered. The Bulldogs' average attendance of 5,044, which is 16th nationally, also won't be a factor for members of the tournament selection committee.
According to Charlie Creme, the women's basketball bracketologist for espnW, the "integrity of the seeding" will be the most important thing that members of that committee will finalize in the next day. That's why he believes MSU will fall just outside of the top 16 when the final pairings are announced.
"All of those resumes (of the teams being considered for the final spots in the top 16) are very similar," Creme said Friday on a teleconference. "I know a lot of people say there are no bad losses for Mississippi State, but none of these teams really have bad losses, except Stanford's loss to Santa Clara."
Creme said he has FSU at No. 16, MSU at No. 17, DePaul at No. 18, Michigan State at No. 19, and Florida at No. 20. He based his seeding on MSU's non-conference schedule that features six victories against teams with RPIs of 256 or higher. He said the NCAA tournament selection committee can't get involved in discussions about teams trying to schedule stronger competition and not being able to do it. He said that would create a problem for the committee that would prevent it from getting anything done.
"Any number of teams can make that claim and then it becomes even more of a subjective process," Creme said. "You have to look at what is and not what could have happened. It is about games that were played."
Schaefer counters that his team won 13 games in the SEC, which is No. 2 behind the Pacific-12 Conference in a ranking of the nation's top RPI leagues. He also argues the Bulldogs advanced to the SEC tournament title game, went 9-3 in their final 12 games, including a 5-3 mark on the road in their last eight, and have no bad losses.
If Schaefer had a few minutes with the committee members, he also would tell them that four of his team's losses are by six points or less.
Schaefer was persuasive Wednesday when he made his points. After watching his team beat Tennessee 58-48 in the semifinals of the SEC tournament, it was hard not to think MSU wasn't one of the top 16 teams in the country. The Bulldogs delivered 40 minutes of grit and determination to earn their second victory against the Lady Volunteers this season.
But Creme's breakdown of the top 16 Friday made it look like a trip to Tallahassee, Florida, is going to be in MSU's future.
Is that what is best for the women's game? In a time when the sport struggles to attract attention, you would think the NCAA would want to have teams that have grown their fan bases play at home to improve the "student-athlete experience" that coaches and administrators so often mention.
In more than 25 years of covering women's basketball, I have seen games in front of hundreds of fans and tens of thousands of fans. The NCAA has gone back and forth so many times between teams playing on their home floors to not playing on their home floors that I don't know if the organization has a plan for its game, or knows how to accomplish its goals.
Quite frankly, the women's game is still tough to watch at times. There isn't enough consistency in how games are called, and the notion of "freedom of movement" has had the unintended consequence of making too many games into foul fests. No men's or women's basketball game should have more than 40 fouls in a game, let alone 50.
But those are bigger issues for the NCAA. For now, the concept of "rewarding" a program for creating that "student-athlete experience" doesn't seem to matter. Instead, the NCAA would have you believe a program that draws an average of 752 fans for its home games is one of the nation's best "teams." It might be, but is it one of the best "programs"?
In four years, Schaefer and his coaching staff have created a program in Starkville that has built a loyal following. MSU plays with tenacity and has the potential to push that average attendance even higher in the years to come. So why not "reward" it?
Does MSU need to have a stronger non-conference schedule? Yes. It needs to challenge itself more in November and December because it has solidified its position as one of the SEC's top teams.
MSU also needs to capitalize on the continued growth of sophomore Victoria Vivians, who Friday was named one of 30 players on the watch list for the WBCA Wade Trophy, which is presented annually to the nation's top NCAA Division I women's basketball player, one who excels athletically as well as serves as a positive role model on and off the court.
It remains to be seen how it will play out. The doors to Humphrey Coliseum will open at 5 p.m. Monday to welcome fans who want to watch the NCAA tournament selection show with Schaefer and the Bulldogs. The move to the Hump from downtown Starkville is another sign of the program's maturation. Let's hope the Bulldogs receive the right news.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can reach him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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