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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Analysis: Tournaments tough on local women’s teams, but numbers support selection committees

Idaho head coach Jon Newlee needs a good week from his Vandals to lead to a better Big Sky Tournament seed. (Jessica Hill / Associated Press)
Idaho head coach Jon Newlee needs a good week from his Vandals to lead to a better Big Sky Tournament seed. (Jessica Hill / Associated Press)

Want some March Madness? That was Jon Newlee on Selection Monday.

The Idaho womens’ coach was hoping his Vandals would have a fighting chance this time – not like in 2013, when they were shipped off as a 16 seed to lose at UConn by 68 points.

A 15 seed would do the trick this time, Newlee reasoned – or perhaps a 14, given the Vandals’ 24-9 record and strong finish.

No such luck: the Vandals are stuck with another No. 16 seed and a near-impossible first-round game Friday at fourth-ranked Baylor.

“I think it’s a joke, to be honest with you,” Newlee said after the brackets were unveiled.

Two hours later the joke was on Eastern Washington coach Wendy Schuller, whose 20-win team was left out of the Women’s NIT – one year after another 20-win Eagle team not only made the field, but knocked off Washington State in the first round.

Eastern is one of only five 20-win Division I teams in the nation to miss out on the postseason.

“It’s absurd and I don’t understand it,” Schuller said.

Meanwhile, the Gonzaga women not only made the WNIT but will host a first-round game on Thursday despite losing nine of their last 13 games and finishing fifth in the West Coast Conference.

“For our seniors, it’s one last chance to give it everything they have – it’s the right kind of closure,” GU coach Lisa Fortier said Tuesday afternoon.

For Eastern senior and career-scoring leader Hayley Hodgins, closure meant the numbness of staring at a website that didn’t have her team’s name on it.

“Honestly, I thought we had pretty good case,” Schuller said.

But beyond the emotions are some compelling numbers, and they force one conclusion: that reaching the postseason is about the company you keep and the nonconference games you win. Close doesn’t count.

One more lesson: Some 20-win seasons are better than others.

For example, the Eagles (20-12) tied for second place this year in the Big Sky, but the conference ranks just 19th out of 32 in RPI. With 18 of its 32 games played in-conference, Eastern’s schedule ranks just 263rd out of 349 schools.

The Eagles scheduled some tough nonconference games, but lost by 4 to then-18th-ranked Northwestern and in overtime to Creighton. Their best win came against North Dakota, which is 94th in RPI.

In contrast, a year ago the Eagles finished only fourth in the Big Sky, but racked up impressive non-conference wins over Wichita State (by 28 points) and Florida, while losing by one to a Gonzaga team that reached the Sweet 16.

That gave the Eagles an RPI of 121, easily putting them in the WNIT field. This year’s number was 172, which didn’t help Eastern’s case with the selection committee.

Meanwhile, Idaho was shipped to play top-seeded Baylor – a cruel fate, until you consider that only four teams in the NCAA field have a worse RPI than Idaho’s 123.

Three of those teams were given 16 seeds. However, Alabama State – the worst team in the field at 220 RPI – got a 15 seed and a reasonably short trip to Austin, Texas. By rights, Idaho should have been a 15 seed, traveling to Austin while Alabama State went to Baylor.

But beyond that tweak, the committee would have been hard-pressed to place Idaho any higher. Like Eastern, the Vandals didn’t have a nonconference win of note and their best outings were a pair of wins over North Dakota.

And what of Gonzaga, whose players admitted fretting about getting a bid after a disappointing 18-13 season? As it turned out, they had nothing to worry about.

On closer inspection, the Bulldogs played in a conference that ranks eighth in RPI and they own wins over a pair of top-50 teams, West Virginia and BYU.

The latter win, 73-55 romp over the Cougars on Senior Night, probably put GU over the top, Fortier acknowledged.

“We’re excited – that’s what you play all the regular-season games for,” Fortier said.

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