Thursday, March 16, 2017

The ABC's of the 2017 WNIT

The WNIT kicked off Wednesday, and four Virginia schools will begin Friday with first-round games in the 64-team tournament. Here's what you need to know:

Virginia teams in the field - Radford, JMU, Virginia, Virginia Tech

First-round pairings (Virginia schools):

Radford (24-8) at JMU (24-8), Friday, 7 p.m.

Rider (24-8) at Virginia Tech (17-13), Friday, 7 p.m.

Virginia (19-12) at St. Joseph's (17-14, Friday, 7 p.m.

Three keys to WNIT play

Momentum - If you're talking about the positive kind, in the WNIT first round, there's no such thing. Every team in the field is coming off a loss. So in this tournament, no one is trying to build off what just happened. The goal is to build something new.

Motivation - A tricky, at times elusive concept for this event. For some players, a WNIT bid is a coveted reward for a successful season. Others really enjoy playing together and relish the opportunity for more games. But for others, the WNIT is painful consolation after a season geared toward making the NCAAs. And some are just worn out after a long season and would really rather be doing something else. Everybody says the right stuff in the lead-up. But we usually don't learn who really wants to do this until the games begin.

Home court advantage - Since the WNIT expanded to 64 teams in 2010, the home team has won roughly 89 percent of first-round games. Keep that in mind when filling out your WNIT bracket.

You ARE filling out a WNIT bracket, right? You can borrow one here, in case you misplaced yours.

RPI nuggets

Highest RPIs in the field - South Dakota State (38); JMU (41); Central Michigan (43)

Lowest RPIs in the field - Grambling (201); Sacred Heart (202); Seattle (215)

Lowest RPI to receive at-large bid - Louisiana Tech (139)

Note: The RPI of Old Dominion, like Louisiana Tech a member of Conference USA, was 136. Had ODU won its regular season finale against UTSA, the Lady Monarchs would have nabbed the fourth seed in the C-USA Tournament. Instead, the Lady Techsters claimed that spot and positioned themselves for that last WNIT at-large bid. We knew that UTSA loss was damaging. Turns out it may have been even more damaging than we realized.

Surprise omissions

Not sure why Stephen F. Austin (25-7, RPI 89) or Buffalo (22-10, RPI 98, six wins over teams in the WNIT field) didn't get invited. Stephen F. Austin accepted a bid to the WBI. We also would have liked to have seen them find a spot for William and Mary (20-11, RPI 125), which closed with four straight victories, including decisions over WNIT-bound JMU and Drexel, before falling in the CAA Tournament semifinals to Elon.

Breaking it down

Radford at JMU

Both teams were denied a conference title (and NCAA Tournament bid) on Sunday, so it will be interesting to see if each can avoid any emotional hangover. JMU will be playing its sixth straight game at home. Based on the quality of the Dukes' season, relative to this field, the WNIT's hosting guidelines and the school's willingness to bid for home games in previous years, it's conceivable that JMU could continue hosting as long as it remains in the tournament. Of course, Radford aims to make that a one-game deal. The Highlanders have played six straight games decided by three points or fewer/overtime and have had three games end by a final score of 49-48 - including Sunday's heartbreaking loss to UNC Asheville in the Big South final - since Feb. 7. Given both teams' stingy defenses, no one should be surprised to see another low-scoring affair unfold.  But JMU has a fifth gear on offense, and if the Dukes find it, the Highlanders may be hard-pressed to keep up - especially at JMU.

Up next: The winner plays Friday's St. Joseph's-Virginia winner in the second round.

Rider at Virginia Tech

The Hokies will have gone 16 days without a game when they tip off Friday. The sense here is that in this case, the break was probably a good thing for a team that got caught in a vicious downward spiral - losses in 12 of its final 13 games - in the rugged ACC. That said, Virginia Tech still hasn't lost to a non-ACC opponent this season (13-0). If the Hokies haven't been beaten down by what happened the last couple months, this feels like the type of challenge they were successfully navigating in November and December. Rider is one of those teams for which making the WNIT is a major achievement as this is the first such bid in the program's history. The Broncs' 24 wins are the most in a single season at Rider since 1981-82.

Up next: The winner plays Friday's Navy-George Washington winner in the second round.

Virginia at St. Joseph's

On resume the Cavaliers, who narrowly missed out on an NCAA at-large bid, grade out as one of the best teams in this tournament. So it's odd to see them opening play on the road. But Virginia apparently does not bid for home games is this tournament as this is the third straight season the Cavs will kick off WNIT play in someone else's building. It worked out last season, albeit barely, as the Cavaliers traveled to Richmond and rallied from nine points down over the final 6:15 to stun VCU 52-50 in first round action. Virginia added a second victory at Rutgers before bowing in the third round at Hofstra. St. Joe's features former Cavaliers Amanda Fioravanti (8.5 ppg), who transferred after just one semester, and Jaryn Garner (tied for the team high in assists), Fioravanti in particular figures to be extremely motivated to perform well Friday.

Up next: The winner plays Friday's Radford-JMU winner in the second round.

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