Virginia (16-15) at VCU (23-9), 7 p.m.
Not sure if people realize how strong of a resume these Rams complied. In fact, in a lot of ways, it looks like an NCAA tournament resume.
Consider that VCU logged four RPI Top-50 victories, with the headliner coming at RPI No. 11 Arizona State. The Rams beat three conference tournament champions (George Washington, Iona, North Carolina A&T). They went 6-2 against teams in the NCAA tournament field. And remember, they did much of this damage without starting junior forward Camille Calhoun, who suffered a torn ACL during the third quarter of the win at Arizona State on Dec. 5. At the time, Calhoun was tied for the team lead in scoring and third in rebounding.
That VCU only finished fifth in the Atlantic 10 speaks to the quality depth of a league that sent three teams to the NCAAs. But it also means the Rams project as one of the most dangerous teams in the WNIT.
Like VCU, Virginia (16-15) also did a lot of the stuff that gets the NCAA selection committee's attention. The Cavaliers' 5-0 start included wins over eventual NCAA qualifiers Middle Tennessee State, Auburn and Green Bay. A fourth such win came on Jan. 3 when Virginia spectacularly dismantled Miami 76-56.
But everything changed four days later, when star guard Faith Randolph suffered a thumb injury late in a blowout loss to Notre Dame. The Cavaliers went 2-7 while Randolph healed and could not re-capture their mojo upon her return. Virginia closed its season by officially ceding ownership of its Virginia Tech rivalry to the Hokies - the Cavs had won 18 straight prior to this season but lost both meetings in 2016 - then succumbed to a very vulnerable Duke squad in its ACC tournament opener.
Then earlier this week, we learned that Cavaliers leading scorer Mikayla Venson has decided to transfer and is no longer on the team. The sophomore guard became this sixth player to leave the Cavaliers with eligibility remaining since the start of the 2013-14 season. Now, we don't know the underlying reasons behind each departure, and certainly each case can be different. Still, that's a lot of folks leaving in a three-year span, especially from a prestigious school like Virginia.
Also, according to a story in the Daily Progress, Venson informed head coach Joanne Boyle of her plans last week. Virginia made the announcement Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the WNIT teams were selected. Were the Cavaliers concerned that revealing the loss of its leading scorer sooner may have cost them a postseason bid?
What remains to be seen is what this means for the Cavaliers in tonight's game. As we stated earlier, Virginia isn't exactly coming into this thing with positive momentum and will need to make up the 15.1 points per game Venson is taking with her. The Cavaliers have for the most part been a disappointing postseason team (conference tournament and WNIT) under Boyle in previous seasons. Furthermore, road teams historically have had a tough go of things in WNIT openers. Home teams have won roughly 78 percent of first-round WNIT games over the past five years.
That said, how many times have we seen a team lose a key player but rally around each other and deliver an unexpectedly strong performance? Led by Randolph, Virginia still has several quality players. Even without Venson, a person would be foolish to take a Cavaliers win at VCU off the table.
But at least we feel we know what we're going to get from the Rams - stingy, pugnacious defense and opportunistic scoring that can come from a host of different sources.
What will Virginia bring? Under these circumstances, honestly, we have no idea.
Elon (18-12) at Virginia Tech (17-13), 7 p.m.
- Don't sleep on the Phoenix - Elon's resume includes a 69-66 victory at N.C. State, the same N.C. State that topped Tech by 11 points in Blacksburg. Elon has also shown a tendency to play good teams tough. They had reasonably close showings at South Carolina (15 points) and West Virginia (10 points). In addition, the two losses to three-time CAA champion James Madison were by a combined six points.
Liberty (20-12) at Villanova (19-11), 7 p.m.
- The Wildcats were on an NCAA tournament trajectory until star guard Caroline Coyer went down with a torn ACL last month. Obviously Villanova sorely misses its two-time first-team All-Big East ace, but most of the elements that make this such a confounding team to play are still in place. Their unique, deliberate style is a bear to prepare for on short notice. They're often deadly from 3-point range (8.6 made 3s per game. And they don't beat themselves - the Wildcats lead Division I in fewest turnovers committed and rank 15th in free throw percentage.
Interesting tidbit - Liberty freshman guard Molly Reagan and Villanova freshman forward Bridget Herlihy were teammates at Braintree High School in the great state of Massachusetts.