|Hampton's Olivia Allen|
For some teams, it may only be the wildest of dreams for a magical March run. Still, as February winds down every one of Virginia's 13 Division I teams still has something to play for.
A few notes:
- At this point no team has positioned itself for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Hampton (MEAC) and Liberty (Big South) will be favored to play their way in by repeating as conference champions.
- Both teams are also on track for automatic WNIT bids for finishing first in their respective conferences, so each will be guaranteed to play in one of the postseason tournaments.
- Four other teams - JMU, Virginia, Old Dominion and Richmond - have shots at at-large WNIT bids. A fifth, Radford, has an outside chance.
- Of course, all of the above teams save ODU could also get white-hot, win their conference tournaments and advance to the NCAAs. The Lady Monarchs are ineligible for the CAA Tournament because of their impending move to Conference USA.
- WNIT teams must finish with at least a .500 overall record so for Norfolk State (5-18), William and Mary (6-19), George Mason (8-17), Virginia Tech (8-17), Longwood (9-17) and VCU (10-16) it's either win a conference tournament and advance to the NCAAs, or go home.
- VCU faces the added burden of still needing to qualify for its conference tournament (only 12 of the Atlantic 10's 16 teams are invited; the Rams are currently 13th).
Analyzing the NCAA/WNIT chances:
James Madison (18-8, 12-2 CAA)
Thursday's 79-45 mauling of Towson was the Dukes' 14th win in their last 16 games - a streak that began, ironically enough, immediately after JMU fell to 1-6 and lost reigning CAA Defensive Player of the Year Nikki Newman for the season to a foot injury. The Dukes already have one high-value win this season (No. 25 Green Bay) and can pick up another Sunday at No. 18 Delaware. But since even toppling the mighty Blue Hens would leave the Dukes with just three victories over teams inside the RPI Top 100, it's hard to see an NCAA Tournament bid in the Dukes' future unless they win the CAA Tournament. And doing that may require not just beating Delaware but also pesky Drexel, which has won three of the past four meetings with JMU (the teams will meet again in the regular-season finale on March 6 in Philadelphia).
Hampton (21-5, 12-0 MEAC)
For all of the three-time defending MEAC champion Lady Pirates' success under head coach David Six, the Lady Pirates have yet to get through a conference regular season unbeaten. But with three of their final four games at home, Hampton has an excellent chance to wrap up a 16-0 MEAC campaign before heading to a conference tournament being played some 20 miles from campus at the Scope in Norfolk. The Lady Pirates will almost certainly have to win this tournament to make the NCAAs, as their RPI is in the mid-80s and their lone quality win (LSU) is somewhat offset by two "bad" losses (Prairie View, Virginia Tech). But if Hampton does win the MEAC, that win over LSU could bump the Lady Pirates up a bit in seeding. Two years ago, a Hampton regular season win over Florida helped the Lady Pirates get a No. 13 seed, the highest ever for a MEAC team in a 64-team NCAA Tournament. Last year, with a similar team but no win of that caliber, HU was relegated (unfairly, we think) to a No. 16 seed.
Virginia (15-11, 7-8 ACC)
On Jan. 27, the Cavaliers beat Wake Forest for their third straight win and appeared to be on track for at least an NCAA at-large bid. They've lost five of six games since - a decline accelerated by a spate of injuries - and currently bear little resemblance to the squad that hammered JMU by 21 and knocked off Vanderbilt and Miami earlier this season. Making matters worse, Thursday's night's come-from-ahead loss at Clemson raised the specter of a banged-up Virginia losing its last three games, then flaming out in the first round of the ACC Tournament. This worst-case scenario would leave Virginia at 15-15 and still a likely WNIT invitee. But would the Cavaliers even accept the bid under these circumstances?
Liberty (21-6, 13-2 Big South)
Death, taxes and the Lady Flames winning the Big South...kinda seems that way, doesn't it? Liberty is two games clear of the conference field with three games remaining and in prime position to win the regular-season title for the 14th time in 16 seasons. The Lady Flames have also won 14 of the last 16 conference tournament titles and loom as a prohibitive favorite again when the league unveils its new format - a combined men's and women's event at the new HTC Center in Conway, S.C. - March 5-10. The Lady Flames don't have much of an argument for making the NCAAs without winning this tournament, as despite a relatively high RPI (61 as of earlier this week) Liberty has just one victory over an RPI Top 100 team (JMU). But if the Lady Flames can secure a seed in the 13-14 range and get the right first-round matchup (not too athletic), this team is capable of busting some brackets.
Old Dominion (18-9, 9-6 CAA)
A few weeks ago, when ODU's RPI was in the 140s, we weren't sure about the Lady Monarchs' WNIT prospects. Now that they have 18 wins, including triumphs over Drexel and Northeastern, and an RPI in the 120 range, we like their chances. Since the WNIT expanded to 64 teams in 2009, teams with profiles similar to the Lady Monarchs have been extremely likely to receive bids. Of course, the Lady Monarchs shouldn't just take our word for this, particularly with three games left. Still, the quality of the competition - Hofstra, at JMU and at Northeastern - is such that even if ODU drops all three, we believe the WNIT will still come calling. And don't be shocked if the Lady Monarchs see a first-round matchup with Virginia when they get there. The WNIT loves to do stuff like that.
Richmond (14-13, 4-7 Atlantic 10)
After a rough patch from the middle of January through mid-February - losses in 7 of 9 games - and with an RPI in the low 130s, the Spiders still have a bit of work to do. Obviously a .500 record is a must. So here's the deal. If Richmond wins at least two of its last three games, the Spiders will finish above .500 no matter what they do in the Atlantic 10 Tournament. A 1-2 record means the Spiders will need one A-10 tourney win to hit .500 on the nose. And if the Spiders finish 0-3, they would have to win three conference tournament games to become WNIT eligible - and that's assuming the Spiders weren't one of the four A-10 teams that fail to qualify for the 12-team postseason tourney. Breaking down Richmond's last three games, the Spiders have an excellent opportunity for a win Wednesday at Rhode Island (6-20, 1-10). Conversely, the Spiders are 0-8 lifetime against Charlotte (21-4, 10-1) so prevailing at home in the March 3 season finale will be a major challenge. The swing game is Saturday's 2 p.m. showdown with Butler (16-10, 7-4). A win here would take a ton of pressure off the Spiders the rest of the way.
Radford (13-11, 8-7)
With just three games remaining, the Highlanders are in excellent position to finish at .500 or better even if they stumble early in the Big South Tournament. Radford's problem is the relatively low quality of a lot of its wins based on how the WNIT typically evaluates teams. Ten of the Highlanders' 13 victories have come against teams with RPIs of 230 or beyond, and an 11th win was at the expense of a non-Division I team. Furthermore, Radford's own RPI as of Wednesday was 213. Last year, the highest RPI to receive an at-large WNIT bid was 163. Radford played Miami to a tie game for nearly 30 minutes in the Hurricanes' own gym and has two single-digit losses to Liberty - one by two points - so we've seen the Highlanders compete with quality teams. We just suspect the WNIT isn't going to see enough quality wins.