Rarely can a team ranked No. 4 in the nation legitimately adopt the role of spoiler.
Yet that’s what Whitworth University has done heading into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division III men’s basketball championship – and with good reason, it would seem.
At the Division III level, postseason bracketing is more about geography and economics than tournament resumes. So Whitworth coach Jim Hayford wasn’t surprised when the tournament selection committee sent his fourth-ranked Pirates (26-2) some 2,000 miles across the country to Greensboro, N.C., where they will face Old Dominion Athletic Conference power and 10th-ranked Eastern Mennonite University (24-4) at 3 p.m. Friday in a sectional semifinals showdown.
The game will be played in Ragan-Brown Field House on the campus of host Guilford College (28-2), another ODAC school, which will face Wooster (25-5) in Friday’s other semifinal
In addition, two other ODAC members – Virginia Wesleyan and Randolph-Macon – were awarded spots in the tournament. Randolph-Macon (24-6) advanced to the semifinals of the four-team sectional being hosted by St. Mary’s (Md.) College, which ousted Virginia Wesleyan (23-6) last Saturday in the second round of the tournament.
So it comes again as no surprise to Hayford that the Final Four will be held in Salem, Va., and hosted by the Old Dominion Athletic Conference at a site just a little more than 100 miles from the Guilford College campus.
“Two of the teams in our pod are Old Dominion Athletic Conference teams, and one of them (Guilford) has been given four home games and a chance to play in a final four just 90 minutes from their home gym,” Hayford said. “I’m not a detective, but I don’t think it takes one to figure out that the NCAA would like to have an Old Dominion Athletic Conference team or two in the final four.
“Still, I like our bracket, and we certainly don’t mind going in and trying to spoil the (NCAA’s) plan.”
In Eastern Mennonite, the Pirates will face a team that took the No. 1 seed into the ODAC tournament after sharing the regular-season conference title with Guilford. But the Royals suffered an 82-80 loss to Randolph-Macon in the semifinals and ended up landing an at-large berth in the NCAAs.
Friday night’s Whitworth-EMU game will be one of only four sectional semifinals featuring matchups between teams ranked in the latest D3hoops.com Top 25 poll.
“The two highest-ranked teams that played in the second round were in our game (against 12th-ranked Chapman University), and the two highest-ranked teams in the third round will be the same,” Hayford said. “And I wouldn’t want it any other way.
“Our philosophy the last four years has been to play anybody, anywhere, at any time. We didn’t dodge any of the big boys in our nonconference schedule this year. We know that in order to get to the final four, you’re going to have to go through some great teams along the way, and we welcome the challenge.”