NCAA women: Underdogs beware

Alabama State coach Freda Freeman-Jackson’s play call to open the second half against Florida State on Saturday could not have been drawn up any better.

In execution, the play did not pan out the way Freeman-Jackson had envisioned; a missed jumper compounded by an ensuing missed layup left her shaking her head on the sideline.

But the call itself was appropriate, considering the Lady Hornets’ predicament.

“Mercy! Mercy! Mercy!” Alabama State guard Brittney Smith shouted.

The plea fell on deaf ears. The Seminoles forged onward.

If Florida State coach Sue Semrau and the second-seeded Seminoles had stopped scoring at 50 points, they could have punched their tickets to the Round of 32, as Alabama State’s offense sputtered to a total of only 49.

But by the time Florida State reached 50, there was still 16 minutes 23 seconds left in the contest. The officials could have installed a lid on the Seminoles’ basket only a few minutes after halftime, and the Seminoles still would have been declared the winner.

Unfortunately for Freeman-Jackson, the referees were not that generous. The final score was 91-49.

NCAA Tournament matchups that pit a No. 2 seed against a No. 15 seed often follow a similar script. Since the women’s game adopted a 64-team postseason format in 1994, second-seeded squads are a perfect 88-0 against No. 15 seeds.

The No. 14 seeds are not much luckier. They are winless against their third-seeded counterparts during the opening round.

Although the tournament committee appropriately rewards the country’s best teams with the best seeds, its final rulings on the bottom-tier squads resemble more of a death sentence than anything else. While the men’s bracket has made a tradition of embracing underdogs, the women’s side of the sport has been busy burying them in the first round, year after year.

However, it is hard to place blame on the selection committee. In the case of Alabama State’s seeding, the Lady Hornets squeaked their way into the postseason by winning the Southwestern Athletic Conference Tournament.

Had Alabama State failed to secure its league’s championship, Freeman-Jackson and her squad would most likely have been at home watching the NCAA Tournament rather than participating in it.

So when the committee handed the Lady Hornets a No. 15 seed, there was no controversy. But for casual fans searching for an inspiring story, the right call could still leave them wanting more–more suspense, more drama, more entertainment.

Teams like Florida Gulf Coast and George Mason encapsulated the underdog theme during their tournament runs in the men’s bracket, and in the process, they gained notice on and off the court.

The Dunk City effect on Florida Gulf Coast helped prompt a $6 million expansion proposal for Alico Arena, a tenfold increase in merchandise sales and even a spike in freshman applications submitted to the university.

George Mason’s run to the Final Four during the 2006 NCAA Tournament was worth $677 million in free publicity, according to the university’s website.

But the women’s college basketball is not even close to achieving parity in the tournament. Smaller programs like Alabama State have a hard time just keeping up on the court.

Seven programs lost by 30 points or more during the first round of the women’s tournament. Only two games in the men’s bracket ended with a margin of 30 or more.

As a whole, the women’s opening round has been one-sided since it was introduced 21 years ago. The median margin of victory during the opening games is 18.2 points, and it reaches as high as 22.1 in some years.

On the other hand, the median margin of victory for the men’s Round of 64 during the same stretch is 12.95 points. It has never risen above 18 and has dipped into the 10-point range in four seasons.

Two seasons ago, with a 68-point rout of No. 16 seed Idaho, Geno Auriemma’s powerhouse Connecticut squad illustrated the breadth of the talent gap. Even when pitted against Louisville, a seemingly on-par opponent, in the championship game, the Huskies breezed to a 93-60 victory.

But in the process, Auriemma proved that dominance is not popular. Neither of the Huskies’ last two national title games featured a capacity crowd, including the 2014 championship matchup against Notre Dame, which for the first time showcased two undefeated teams.

After nine championships in 20 years, UConn has eliminated much of the chaos that usually accompanies a one-and-done tournament. And it is not just that the Huskies seem to win every year. It is the fact that when they win, the Huskies are not even in the same ballpark as their opponents.

UConn has participated in 107 NCAA Tournament games since 1994. In just four of those matchups, the scoring margin between Auriemma’s squad and the opponent has been 3 or fewer points.

In other words, in 97 percent of UConn’s postseason matchups during the past two decades, fans could have left the arena early, knowing which team would win. And it has been nearly a decade since the Huskies last faced a one-possession contest in the tournament.

To put that into perspective, the Round of 64 in this year’s men’s bracket included 10 contests that ended in margins of 3 or fewer points.

While the margin of victory in the first 32 games of the men’s tournament has shrunk in the past three years, the giants of the women’s game, like UConn, continue to do their part to widen the already gaping divide.

Auriemma is not the only one to blame for the game’s disparity, although his having contributing to 71- and 72-point margins of victory in the opening round, as he did in 2000 and 2001, made him an easy target. Tennessee had Pat Summitt, Baylor has Kim Mulkey, and Notre Dame has Muffet McGraw. In women’s college basketball, those coaches are the 1 percent.

For many fans of the sport, the dominance of that 1 percent is a lot less appealing than 1-point tournament thrillers, which the women’s bracket has featured 14 times in the opening round in 21 years.

The men needed only the last seven years to match that total.

Of all the people pushing for a more competitive playoff bracket in the women’s game, Semrau, Florida State’s coach, might be the strangest. For all intents and purposes, she is a member of the 1 percent after having earned three Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year awards and having been named a finalist for the Coach of the Year Award this season.

Still, she agreed that deep tournament runs by smaller programs, or even just more competitive games, would help advance the popularity of women’s basketball.

But Semrau said that if parity was to become a reality in the women’s NCAA Tournament, she had only one condition: “Not in this one.”

On Monday night, the Seminoles thwarted yet another potential underdog story in women’s basketball when they defeated No. 7 seed Florida Gulf Coast, 65-47.

Florida Gulf Coast’s coach, Karl Smesko, has not been shy about his desire to tweak the rules. After Val Ackerman, the current commissioner of the Big East and the first president of the WNBA, came out with a report on how to make the game more competitive in 2013, Smesko published his own statement that included possibly reducing the number of foul shots from two to one and even eliminating the ball screen entirely.

“I have ideas like that, and when they come out, they get zero support, so I wouldn’t be looking for any of that coming up,” Smesko said after his team’s loss.

When Semrau took the podium a few minutes later, she made it clear that every idea needs to be heard so that the game can keep growing. As president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, Semrau is tasked with the responsibility of reviewing the sport with fellow coaches on a regular basis.

She even spoke with the committee Tuesday.

“We want parity,” Semrau said after the 18-point victory. “We want to see this game move forward.”

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