Friday, February 14, 2014

Who's got NCAA or WNIT potential?

Now that we've hit the business end of the regular season, which teams are in the mix for an NCAA bid, who's likely headed to the WNIT, and who needs some March Madness in their conference tournament to avoid packing up the uniforms for good?

First, keep in mind that:

- Since winning a conference tournament title guarantees an NCAA slot, technically every team outside of the Ivy League is still alive for that event. The Ivy has no tournament and sends its regular-season champion to the NCAAs.

- The highest finisher in each conference that doesn't make the NCAA's receives an automatic bid to the WNIT.

- Teams must have a least a .500 record to receive a WNIT at-large bid.

- RPIs listed below are as of Feb. 10 from the NCAA official website.

With all that as a backdrop, here's a team-by-team breakdown of the possibilities:

Toia Giggetts
JMU (19-4, 9-0 CAA): From drumming Virginia and UCLA to knocking off St. John's in its own gym to running roughshod through the Colonial Athletic Association, the Dukes have done just about everything one could ask to not just qualify to the NCAAs but get a competitive seed and a real chance to do damage once they get there. (By the way, the St. John's victory gets stronger by the day, as the Red Storm now boast a Top-25 ranking and a Top-15 RPI.) Delaware was a No. 6 seed out of this conference last season, and something like that isn't out of the question for the Dukes if they win out and capture the CAA Tournament title. And like those Blue Hens, these Dukes have Sweet 16 potential. But while JMU looks like a prohibitive favorite to run the Colonial table,  some challenges lie ahead. Road games at Drexel and at Delaware within a four-day span next week could be daunting, particularly the trip to Newark, Del. Yes, JMU blasted the Blue Hens by 36 points in Harrisonburg, but it was a three-point game at halftime. In addition, no one should ever take for granted winning three games in three days at a neutral site, the requirement for capturing the CAA Tournament crown. Having said that, we believe these Dukes can survive a stumble or two and still get at-large approval. But of course, if they keep playing the way they've been playing, it won't come to that.
   JMU's stretch run: Friday vs. UNC Wilmington (RPI 289); Sunday at Drexel (110); Feb. 20 at Delaware (125); Feb. 23 vs. Hofstra (159); Feb. 27 at Charleston (149); March 2 vs. William and Mary (278); March 5 at Northeastern (185).

Faith Randolph
Virginia (12-11, 5-5 ACC): Anything remains possible for the Cavaliers, from playing in the NCAA Tournament to not qualifying for the postseason at all. Now, clearly Virginia's NCAA margin-for-error is razor-thin at this point. But they do have quality wins over Florida State and Maryland, and games remaining against likely/certain NCAA participants North Carolina, N.C. State and Florida State. If the Cavs can bag 2-3 of those, then slay another heavyweight or two in the ACC Tournament, even a 12- or 13-loss Virginia team could make a solid case for NCAA inclusion based on how teams have historically been selected. On the other hand, if the Cavs go 2-4 in their final six regular-season games, they would need two wins in the ACC Tournament just to have the .500 overall record required for WNIT participation. The bottom line is the Cavaliers need a white-hot three-week stretch against a series of really good teams. It's a big ask, no question. But since the Cavaliers made ending a three-year NCAA Tournament drought their stated goal during the preseason, we expect their effort in these games will be off-the-charts.
   Virginia's stretch run: Friday at Georgia Tech (RPI 40); Sunday vs. Virginia Tech (111); Feb. 20 vs. North Carolina (33); Feb. 23 at N.C State (12); Feb. 27 vs. Miami (91); March 2 at Florida State (29).

Alyssa Bennett
Hampton (20-4, 11-0 MEAC): Despite another challenging non-conference schedule and some solid victories (Kansas State, Drexel, Southern Miss), the Lady Pirates weren't able to knock off any likely NCAA Tournament teams and thus are not in line for an at-large bid. Of course, the four-time defending MEAC Tournament champions have done a fine job of inviting themselves to the NCAAs of late and loom as strong favorites to do so again next month. Should the Lady Pirates make it five in a row, the big question will be seeding. The fact that Hampton was relegated to a 15 seed last year and a 16 the year before raised serious questions in our minds about how carefully the NCAA selection committee tries to differentiate the teams at the lower end of the bracket. We know they agonize over who's the fourth No. 1 seed. But when it comes to who's a 14 and who's a 16, it's like, eh, whatever. ESPN's latest mock bracket has Hampton as a 13th seed, which to us feels about right. But we felt the same way the last two years. Let's see what the committee decides. By the way, with a two-game lead for first place with five games left and a 41-game winning streak against MEAC foes, Hampton will almost certainly go into the MEAC Tournament assured of at least a WNIT bid.
   Hampton's stretch run: Saturday at Norfolk State (RPI 291); Feb. 22 at Howard (252); Feb. 24 at Maryland-Eastern Shore (329); March 1 vs. Norfolk State (291); March 6 vs. North Carolina A&T (91).

Mickayla Sanders
Liberty (14-10, 10-5 Big South): How dominant has Liberty been in the Big South historically? When the Lady Flames suffered back-to-back league losses recently, it marked their first two-game losing streak in conference play since 1997. Still, the preseason feeling that Liberty might be finally be  vulnerable is playing out, and conference rivals that typically haven't had a chance against the Lady Flames are now smelling blood. Thursday's 46-43 loss to Presbyterian was the Lady Flames' fourth setback in its last seven games, and while there's no one in this league Liberty can't beat, even a first-round victory will no longer be a given at the Big South Tournament. Nor is a certainty that Liberty's RPI, which was at 161 before the loss to RPI 303 Presbyterian, will merit a WNIT at-large bid if the Lady Flames don't win the conference. Big South foes had better get Liberty this year, though, because this entire Lady Flames cast will return next season.
   Liberty's stretch run: Saturday at Gardner-Webb (243); Feb. 20 vs. UNC Asheville (273); Feb. 22 vs. Winthrop (116); Feb. 27 at Radford (335); March 1 at Longwood (327).

Isis Thorpe
VCU (18-7, 6-6 Atlantic 10): With an RPI of 112, the Rams are solidly in the mix for a WNIT at-large bid, which would be a significant accomplishment for a team with seven freshmen that won just 12 games last year. A stunning 13-game winning streak raised hopes of an even bigger prize, but the Atlantic 10 schedule has been rough on the Rams of late. Thursday's loss at George Washington was VCU's third in four games, and the Rams are just 4-6 since Jan. 8. That said, we're still giving them at least a puncher's chance of playing their way into the NCAAs by winning the A-10 tourney. Granted, there's a lot working against them pulling this off.  Seven teams are currently ahead of them in the standings, and the Rams are looking at having to win four games over four days to take the crown. Still, this is a team that has won at St. Joseph's, beaten Duquesne and come within four at Dayton. So while we're not exactly betting on the Rams to win the A-10 tourney, we're certainly not betting against them, either.
   VCU's stretch run: Saturday at Rhode Island (328); Wednesday vs. St. Bonaventure (58); Feb. 22 vs. Saint Louis (215); Feb. 26 at Richmond (133).

Galaisha Goodhope
Old Dominion (11-13, 4-6 Conference USA): The Lady Monarchs have very little margin for error if they want to keep playing past their conference tournament. For starters, their RPI (171) is higher than that of teams normally selected for the WNIT. Furthermore, with a 11-13 mark and just six games remaining, they need to make sure they finish with a .500 record to even be considered. Then there's the Conference USA Tournament. The Lady Monarchs are currently tied for 10th place in the 16-team league. Unless they can finish in the top eight, they're looking at having to win five games in five days at two different venues to take the title. The good news for ODU is that with Middle Tenneessee State  (RPI 28), Southern Miss (50), UTEP (51) and East Carolina (62) in the league, the Lady Monarchs will have opportunities over the next three weeks (UTEP on Saturday, East Carolina on March 5. both at home) and possibly in the tournament to bag quality, RPI-friendly wins. But the Lady Monarchs really need to win those games.
   ODU down the stretch: Saturday vs. UTEP (RPI 51); Wednesday at Rice (155); Feb. 22 at Texas-San Antonio (171); Feb. 26 vs. Louisiana Tech (221); March 1 at Florida International (158); March 5 vs. East Carolina (62).

Virginia Tech (11-13, 1-10 ACC): When the Hokies woke up on New Year's Day, they were 10-2 - including victories over Michigan State and Florida - with legitimate NCAA aspirations. Tech has won just one game since, though, and now finds itself scrambling just to become WNIT-eligible. Of their five remaining games, only two - at North Carolina on Feb. 23 and at Maryland on March 2 - fall into the major upset category so winning opportunities will be there. Heck, they might even make a little noise in the ACC Tournament - the talent for such a run is certainly there. But frankly, we're not sure they've ever fully recovered from an early January stretch of close games that didn't go their way. The tough luck resumed Thursday night when Wake Forest hit two free throws with 5 seconds left to nip the Hokies 65-64. The loss dropped Tech to 1-5 in ACC games decided by 7 points or less.
   Virginia Tech down the stretch: Sunday at Virginia (55); Feb. 20 vs. Pittsburgh (123); Feb. 23 at North Carolina (33); Feb. 27 vs. Clemson (137); March 2 at Maryland (24).

Janelle Hubbard
Richmond (11-13, 5-6 Atlantic 10): The more fate tries to kick this team in the face, the more these Spiders duck and kick back - hard. Richmond has been hit with so many injuries to key players the team that's sitting out is almost as good as the team that suits up. Remarkably, though, each injury somehow seems to only make the healthy players stronger. Their latest "we ain't dead yet" statement came Tuesday night when freshman Janelle Hubbard scored a career-high 29 points and hit the game-winning jumper at the end of the second overtime for 79-77 triumph over a quality Fordham team (RPI 56). Next Spider up, indeed. The win was particularly satisfying since the Spiders came in with a 1-6 record in games decided by 5 points or less, including most recently Saturday's 63-62 loss to VCU in which Gen Okoro's potential game-winning bucket came a split-second after the final buzzer.  Turn even a couple of those results around and the Spiders would be close to a WNIT lock; as it is they're going to have to scramble to just to get the required .500 record. Only a fool would count these guys out, though, and no one's going to be eager to play them in the A-10 Tournament, either.
   Richmond down the stretch: Saturday at Dayton (RPI 19); Wednesday at UMass (283); Feb. 22 vs. George Washington (108); Feb. 26 vs. VCU (112); March 1 at George Mason (287).

 The following teams have little to no mathematical shot at an at-large bid to either tournament. But again, conference tournaments await, so hope springs eternal.

Norfolk State (10-11, 6-4 MEAC) can finish with a winning record but has an RPI of 291, well outside of WNIT at-large bid range. The MEAC Tournament is in Norfolk, though. . . George Mason (7-18, 1-11 Atlantic 10) took out six weeks worth of frustration during Wednesday's 101-78 throttling of hapless UMass for their first victory in 2014. But they'll need at least two more wins to avoid the A-10 tourney's one-game play-in contest and the scenario of having to win five games in five days. . . Injuries and a lack of offense/rebounding have short-circuited last year's Big South Cinderella Longwood (7-18, 4-12 Big South). The Lancers were surprise tournament finalists in 2013. . . William and Mary (5-17, 2-8 CAA) and Radford (7-18, 5-11 Big South) are experiencing the typical growing pains that come when a new coach takes over a program that graduated a bevy of seniors. But after losing its first 15 games against Division I foes, Radford has gone 5-3 since Jan. 16 and has won four of its last five. Could the Highlanders be this year's Longwood at the Big South tourney?

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