San Diego's Amy Kane (No. 10, White) gets the inside step on Arizona State defender Promise Amukamara (No. 10, Red). Kane was one of four Toreros to log double figures as San Diego defeated the now-nationally ranked Pac-12 power, 61-53, on Nov. 13, 2013. (Photo courtesy USD Athletics)
San Diego's Amy Kane (No. 10, White) gets the inside step on Arizona State defender Promise Amukamara (No. 10, Red). Kane was one of four Toreros to log double figures as San Diego defeated the now-nationally ranked Pac-12 power, 61-53, on Nov. 13, 2013. (Photo courtesy USD Athletics)

San Diego, Marist excel in preconference play: Non-BCS programs make their cases for NCAA Tournament bids

January 7, 2014 - 2:19pm

We may be only at or near the halfway point of the women's college basketball season, but for most non-BCS conference teams hoping to impress the NCAA Tournament selection committee, their resumes are pretty much set.

History informs us that the committee places great weight on quality non-conference wins when it comes to evaluating non-BCS programs, and this typically means a win or two over a strong BCS conference foe. In fact, we would argue it's the No. 1 indicator of which non-BCS conference schools will get in. The best example came two years ago, when James Madison had a better record, higher RPI and stronger strength-of-schedule than Middle Tennessee State, and also beat the Blue Raiders head-to-head. MTSU had a win over Kentucky, though, and JMU had no comparable powerhouse win. The Blue Raiders were awarded an NCAA Tournament bid. JMU played - and advanced to the final - in the WNIT.

If you go back over the last five years, virtually every non-BCS team that has received an at-large bid owned at least one quality BCS conference victory. Getting such a win doesn't guarantee a team an at-large bid. But go without such a win and you almost certainly won't get one.

Now, teams in the Atlantic 10, the West Coast Conference and the new Big East can still enhance their stock by defeating NCAA-caliber in-conference foes. But for just about everyone else, regular-season conference losses can only hurt their case, and wins won't do much good. If these teams don't win their conference tournament, they're probably WNIT-bound.

So which non-BCS conference teams have put themselves in the best position?

San Diego (15-0): The positioning couldn't be better for the Toreros. Not only are they one of six Division I unbeatens, they also own an early-season victory over Pac-12 power Arizona State (61-53), currently No. 23 in the Associated Press poll. It took quite a while for San Diego to get any love of its own from the voters, but finally cracked both polls this week at No. 24. Also helping the Toreros' case for an at-large bid is the fact that they play in a loaded West Coast Conference that features three other teams - Gonzaga (12-3), BYU (13-2) and St. Mary's (12-3) - that could merit serious consideration from the selection committee. It's possible the Toreros could lose two, even three games the rest of the way and still be a strong at-large candidate as the WCC is shaping up to be a two-to-three-bid league.

Marist (9-4): The Red Foxes started out 1-4 but haven't lost since falling to Ohio State on Nov. 23. Even better, they purchased something of a golden ticket by upending nationally ranked Oklahoma at home, 76-69, four days before Christmas. Marist doesn't know much about life on the NCAA Tournament bubble as the Red Foxes have won the MAAC's automatic bid eight straight years. But improved Iona (11-2) figures to test them more than usual - at least - in-conference this season. If the Red Foxes don't win the MAAC this time, that victory over the Sooners will be huge.

James Madison (10-4): The Dukes opened their season by thrashing Virginia by 17 (63-46). Four games later, they thumped UCLA on a neutral floor, 77-67. And they've also won at St. John's (64-51). The resume could be even stronger, though. The Dukes fell in overtime against Vanderbilt (85-89, OT), and on Thursday had the ball down three at North Carolina but couldn't get off a final shot, falling 71-74. Still, JMU had the type of non-conference results that should at least draw the committee's attention, especially if Virginia and/or UCLA get on a roll in conference play. Delaware (9-3), which has rebounded well from the loss of Elena Delle Donne, and Drexel (5-8), which always gives JMU fits, loom as particularly dangerous obstacles in the Dukes' path to the Colonial Athletic Association crown.

Bowling Green (11-2): There's no shame in a neutral court loss to Marist (60-74) or an eight-point loss at nationally ranked Purdue (48-57), but there could be value in wins over Michigan (63-52) and especially at Ohio State (64-52). The Buckeyes appear to be hitting their stride; on Thursday, they knocked off the 17th-ranked Boilermakers in the teams' Big-Ten opener. Last season, Bowling Green's MAC rival Toledo didn't get an at-large bid despite going 27-4. If Bowling Green posts a similar mark this year, that Ohio State win could be the difference when the Big Dance rolls around.

Others to consider:

Middle Tennessee State (11-3) - This perennial NCAA qualifier came up short in marquee showdowns against Top-10 Tennessee (57-67) and Kentucky (72-84), and also lost at Arkansas (51-66), which was undefeated until last week when the Razorbacks fell to nationally ranked South Carolina in the teams' SEC opener . The Blue Raiders have won 10 straight, though, and the win over Mississippi State (13-2) could have value, since the Bulldogs contend in the SEC. UTEP (11-2), Southern Miss (11-2), East Carolina (12-1) lead the pack of teams that have positioned themselves to challenge the Blue Raiders in Conference USA. 

Atlantic 10 powers: This league typically sends at least two teams to the NCAAs, and this year Saint Joseph's (11-3), Fordham (13-2), Dayton (7-4), George Washington (11-4) and Duquesne (9-6) look like the prime contenders. Of this group, though, only GWU has a real eye-popping non-conference win, having taken down California (75-72), which was ranked in the Top 10 at the time. As a result, each of these A-10 teams must place a premium on seizing that automatic bid. Also, watch out for revamped VCU (14-1), which hasn't really been tested yet but is absolutely destroying lesser foes in second-year coach Marlene Stollings' uptempo "Fury" system. On Thursday, the Rams picked up their school-record 12th straight victory by pummeling UMass by 58 points, and since then, they've added another to the "W" column with a 71-68 victory at Duquesne. 

The Big East: It remains to be seen how the committee will view the resumes of teams like DePaul (10-4), St. John's (8-5), Villanova (11-2) and Georgetown (6-8), teams that generally are in the NCAA mix but because of the conference split now no longer have opportunities to enhance their stock - and their RPIs - in conference games against the likes of UConn, Louisville and Notre Dame. Still, at least two from the new Big East, which also includes Creighton (8-6), will likely position themselves for serious NCAA at-large looks.

Finally, there are a handful of other teams, most notably Hampton (11-4) from the MEAC, Princeton (9-5) out of the Ivy, Chattanooga (12-3) from the Southern and Sacramento State (10-1) from the Big Sky that have all proven they can hold their own against virtually anyone. Hampton, in particular, continues to do things MEAC programs typically don't even dream of; the Pirates’ latest string of victories came at Drexel (50-47), against Kansas State (86-75, 2OT), against Brown on a neutral floor (71-50), and Virginia Tech (70-60), interrupted only by a road loss at Georgia Tech (70-89). History tells us that teams from these conferences won't get much at-large consideration. But they certainly deserve respect.

At look at other milestones thus far in this young season.

Chippewa Celebration
Crystal Bradford and the Central Michigan Chippewas celebrate their 94-91 victory over Dayton on Dec. 5, 2013. Though the Flyers got their revenge later that month with a 102-89 rout of CMU in Dayton, the early-December nailbiter was among the best games of the NCAA women's basketball preconference schedule. (Photo courtesy Central Michigan Athletics)

Best game: We’re calling it a tie here between Dayton at Central Michigan (Dec. 5) and Gonzaga at St. Mary’s (Dec. 28) – two tilts that aren’t just the best among non-BCS teams, but two of the best games period.

Central Michigan 94, Dayton 91: Three 3s in 21 seconds, including the gamewinner with 0.2 seconds remaining? Overcoming a nine-point deficit in the final 3:56? The Chippewas’ home opener at McGuirk Arena sizzled behind perhaps the most underexposed star guard in the country in 6-0 junior Crystal Bradford. Detroit’s own has followed up a spectacular sophomore season when she led her team in scoring, rebounds, blocks and steals with a junior year of highlights, including the one on this night against a Dayton team that started the season in the Top 10.

A pair of free throws by Amber Deane lifted Dayton to a 91-85 advantage with 27 seconds left, but Bradford answered with a trey from the left wing. Returning to the line, Deane missed a pair, and the double-teamed Bradford found Taylor Johnson, whose banked in 3 knotted it at 91 with 5.7 seconds on the clock. Johnson intercepted the inbounds pass and handed off to Bradford, who drained the off-balance 3 for the win – all part of her 34-point, 12-rebound night.

While Dayton avenged the loss with a 102-89 victory on Dec. 30, Central Michigan finished nonconference play with a 4-8 mark against a schedule CBN Women’s College Basketball rankings called the second toughest in the nation among non-BCS schools.

Saint Mary’s 79, Gonzaga 78, OT: What looked to be over in regulation turned into a wild one in the West Coast Conference opener for both teams. Saint Mary’s senior Jackie Nared’s 3 for 72-71 had the Gaels celebrating until an official review added .3 to the clock. Junior Lindsay Sherbert, fouled before the ball was put into play, converted on one of two from the line to force the extra period. The tight OT turned Saint Mary’s way thanks to a pair of free throws by Danielle Mauldin, who finished with 24 points and 23 rebounds. The Gaels, off to a program-best 12-3 start, added this win to a resume that includes victories over Washington (91-81), USC (71-55) and Alabama (86-76). It was the first time in 11 years the Zags opened the conference season with a loss. Mauldin, by the way, leads the nation in rebounds (14.5).

Runner-up: Vanderbilt 89, James Madison 85, OT: Christina Foggie’s 29 points included a clutch 3-pointer that tied the game and sparked an 11-4 run to rally the Commodores. JMU led 73-70 in regulation, but a trey by Jasmine Lister evened a game that featured eight ties and five lead changes. Dukes junior Toia Giggetts scored 25 with 14 rebounds.

Biggest upset: Marist 76, No. 20 Oklahoma 69: Sydney Coffey’s 25 points propelled the Red Foxes over the Sooners – the first time in program history Marist defeated a ranked opponent on its home court. The Sooners’ lone other trip to Poughkeepsie was in 2009 when they needed overtime to defeat Marist, 70-71. Leanne Ockenden and Casey Dulin scored 17 apiece for the Red Foxes in a see-saw game of 16 lead changes and 16 ties.

Sydney Coffey Sydney Coffey (No. 6) dropped in 25 points to lead Marist to a 76-69 victory over No. 20/19 Oklahoma on Dec. 21, 2013. Casey Dulin (pictured on front page) and Leanne Ockenden added 17 apiece for the Red Foxes in what was perhaps the most stunning upset of the early season. (Photos courtesy Marist Athletics)

Names to know: Albany’s Shereesha Richards leads the nation in field-goal percentage (63.5 percent) and has already racked up six America East Player of the Week awards. The 6-1 sophomore from Rae Town, Jamaica, averages 22.9 ppg. … Akron has two of the country’s Top-10 scorers in Rachel Tecca and Hanna Luburgh. Tecca, a 6-1 senior who is the school’s all-time leading scorer and poised to become Akron’s all-time leading rebounder, averages 24.2 ppg, eighth in the NCAA. Senior guard Luburgh averages 24.1 ppg, which ranks ninth. ... Speaking of points, Florida International’s Jerica Coley’s 28.5 ppg is second in the nation, and the two-time AP All American set the school mark for points in a game with 47 against Wake Forest on Dec. 29. Coley, whose No. 22 jersey was retired on Dec. 7, has amassed 342 points already in this young season.