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March 24, 2009

Like Upsets? Watch the Women

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 1:42 am

A funny thing happened on the way to St. Louis. The NCAA Women’s Tournament, historically much more favorable to top-seeded teams than its male counterpart, has provided the upsets that have been noticeably absent from the Men’s Tournament this year.

The Sweet 16 is merely halfway complete, but already it features two six seeds (Arizona State and Purdue) and a seven (Rutgers) while just one team seeded lower than five advanced amongst the men.

Sunday night’s conclusion to the opening round brought one huge upset and one near-miss. The latter saw Texas-San Antonio bid to become the first 15 seed ever to win a game in the Women’s Tournament, taking Baylor (sans coach Kim Mulkey, in a Jim Calhoun parallel) to the extra session before running out of steam. Oddly, the only 16 seed ever to win an NCAA Tournament game was on the women’s side, the Harvard Crimson taking down the injury-battered Stanford Cardinal at Maples Pavilion.

Even had the Roadrunners down the (nearly) unthinkable, it still would have been overshadowed by the Tennessee Lady Vols being upset by Ball State. In pure seeding terms, the outcome wasn’t stunning–it was a classic 5-12 upset, one of two in the first round this year. But these are Pat Summitt‘s Vols, the defending national champions. Summitt had never failed to reach the Sweet 16 since the NCAA Tournament began. This year’s Tennessee squad had to rebuild after losing five key seniors, four of whom went to the WNBA. Yet the Lady Vols were still expected to reach the Sweet 16 and certainly not lose to a Ball State team making its NCAA Tournament debut.

One factor in the upsets? The women’s subregionals take place on campus, with the host team getting to play at home to boost attendance. That frequently gives lower-seeded teams home-court advantage, which Rutgers parlayed into its victory over Auburn. 12 seed Gonzaga, which knocked off Xavier in the first round and nearly beat Pittsburgh to join the men in the Sweet 16, got to play in front of a partisan crowd in Seattle. Had this scenario played out on the men’s side, the airwaves would be filled with experts crying foul. For the women, it’s a necessary evil–but one that does serve to make the early rounds more unpredictable.

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