Wednesday, March 20, 2013

WNIT starts for ODU, JMU, Richmond

There's a satisfying, season-saving, fan-multiplying, championship run out there for one of the 64 teams set to tip off in the 2013 Women's National Invitational Tournament.

Can James Madison, Old Dominion or Richmond be that team? We'll begin finding out Thursday night as all three teams enter first-round play.

One big key when breaking down WNIT matchups - home court is huge. The home team went 26-6 in first-round WNIT games last season; 25-7 the year before. The last two WNIT champions, Oklahoma State and Toledo, thrived at least in part from winning all six games without leaving their own gym. And of course, last year JMU ripped off five straight victories at the Convocation Center en route to the tournament final.

 A look at the games involving state teams:

North Carolina A&T (22-9) at James Madison (22-10), 7 p.m.

Last season JMU believed it belonged in the NCAA Tournament - "Middle Tennessee State? C'mon. We beat them!" - and Tarik Hislop and Co. played with a "we'll show them" chip on their shoulder throughout their run. We're not sure the same mojo is in play this year. This year's Dukes went into the CAA Tournament knowing they'd need to win it in order to qualify for the NCAAs. The emphatic semifinal loss to Drexel simply sealed their fate. It will be interesting to see what theme unifies the group this time.

Speaking of that loss to Drexel, we were struck by how similar it was to the 2012 CAA Tournament semifnal loss to the same Dragons. Consider:

2012: The Dukes trailed by six at the half, endured a stretch of nine minutes without a point after the break and lost by 16.

2011: Dukes trailed by eight at the half, endured a stretch of nine minutes without a field goal after break and lost by 17.

Something about Drexel....

Anyway, while playing at home will help, the Dukes will definitely need to take North Carolina A&T seriously, though. The teams at the top of the MEAC - A&T finished second to Hampton - are a lot better than most folks realize. The Lady Aggies' non-conference victims included Liberty, a team that beat JMU. Also, the Lady Aggies coaching staff is well-acquainted with JMU hoops. First-year head coach Tarrell Robinson spent the past three years as an assistant at VCU, and A&T assistant Shavon Earp was in a similar role the previous two seasons at William and Mary.

Davidson (21-12) at Old Dominion (19-11), 7 p.m.

The Lady Monarchs haven't played a game since March 3, and that long a layoff is a concern no matter how hard you've gone in practice. But in addition to benefiting from playing at home, the Lady Monarchs should be aided by the fact that they're really excited about a WNIT appearance. Many teams have to re-energize themselves for this tournament after having their NCAA hopes dashed. But ODU has been targeting this event for weeks.  Shae Kelley, Jackie Cook and the rest of the Lady Monarchs figure to take the court with as much or more enthusiasm as any team in the field.

Davidson, by contrast, is coming off a devastating one-point loss in the Southern Conference title game on March 11. The Wildcats led Chattanooga by five with less than two minutes remaining, only to fall on an offensive rebound putback - the Moccasins' third o-board of the possession - with seven seconds left.

Now, the Wildcats may show up at the Constant Center hell-bent on avenging that loss, and if so, the Lady Monarchs will have a fight on their hands. No one knows this better than ODU coach Karen Barefoot, as she had some tense battles with Davidson, which featured much of this same personnel, during her days as the head coach at Elon.

It would also help if the Lady Monarchs can enhance their home-court edge with a good turnout. Two years ago, only 450 fans came to the Constant Center for ODU's last WNIT appearance, a 68-67 loss to Loyola (Md.) that turned out to be head coach Wendy Larry's last game. There were mitigating circumstances, as the ODU men's basketball team was scheduled to play in the NCAA Tournament the following afternoon in Washington D.C. Still, we're sure this time, Monarch Nation can come a lot stronger than 450.

Richmond (16-15) at North Carolina State (16-16), 7 p.m.

As we mentioned earlier, road games are tough in this tournament. But at least the Spiders have some nice history in N.C. State's Reynolds Coliseum. Last season, Richmond traveled to Raleigh and torched the Wolfpack 72-58. Now, no one should expect the Spiders to flat-out dominate the way they did that night, as while N.C. State underachieved by ACC standards the Wolfpack still has some big-time talent. We're pretty sure Richmond will be competitive, though, and odds are the Spiders will find themselves deep in the second half either in the lead or within a possession or two of it. Of Richmond's 15 losses, 12 have come by single digits. It's amazing how close these Spiders have been to a much better overall record.

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