Wiedmer: Jim Foster's UTC Mocs shouldn't need SoCon tourney for NCAA bid

Wiedmer: Jim Foster's UTC Mocs shouldn't need SoCon tourney for NCAA bid

March 5th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's head basketball coach Jim Foster smiles during a presentation made to celebrate his 800th career win after UTC defeated Samford at McKenzie Arena.

Photo by Erin O. Smith /Times Free Press.

If the NCAA men's basketball tournament began this week, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi believes four Southeastern Conference teams - Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee - would make the 68-team field.

Jerry Palm also has four SEC teams in his latest field but believes Missouri will receive the league's final berth instead of Tennessee.

Naturally, this places even more importance on this Saturday afternoon's Mizzou-UT game inside Thompson-Boling Arena, sense the loser really could see its postseason resume severely damaged.

But let's assume that whoever within the SEC ultimately receives NCAA tourney bids, the number doesn't dip below four. Can anyone with ties to America's best football conference legitimately argue the league was robbed?

Yes, the league should demand a public recount if it winds up with two bids only. Even three bids seems a bit severe given the mountains of mediocrity throughout the rest of the country, except perhaps the Big 12 and ACC, which could wind up with four schools -- Duke, fast-closing North Carolina, Syracuse and regular-season champ Virginia -- among the first eight teams chosen.

But as long as you're in, where you're seeded only makes your goal of surviving and advancing theoretically harder or easier. Regardless, you have a chance. In a general sense, you control your own destiny.

Then there is the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Both its men and women, but particularly its women.

Given their early-season struggles, Will Wade's men Mocs have one chance to march into March Madness this year: Win the conference tournament. And that's as it should be.

But Jim Foster's first UTC women's team is another matter. The women have won 22 straight games and own a 26-3 record. They have the 27th most votes in the latest Associated Press poll, just 10 behind No. 25 DePaul.

Of greater significance, they stand 47th in the NCAA's most recent RPI rankings, one behind Georgia and one ahead of Marist.

In the be-careful-what-you-wish-for department (also known as Just Desserts for Dummies), Ohio State -- the program that decided Foster was no longer a coach taking the Buckeyes to the next step, whatever that means -- is 58th in that same RPI with a 15-17 overall record.

Hello, life; goodbye, Columbus, indeed.

Yet all that good work could go for naught if the women Mocs fail to win the SoCon tourney and the automatic NCAA berth that goes with it. That RPI might get them in. In truth, it should. Conceivably as a 10 to 12 seed.

This quote from Foster after Sunday's final regular-season win should also help:

"It's hard to run the table. You have to show up every night as the team that everyone wants to do well against, and the one that everyone would relish beating. When you win a close game and you're walking off the floor, you can tell by the tears in other players' eyes how bad they wanted it; you don't always appreciate how badly people want to take what's yours."

And that desire to take UTC's deserved bid to the women's tournament won't go away this weekend. It will only increase, which makes Foster and his terrific team's task all the more difficult.

But there is a way the Southern Conference and every other one-bid league in the country could do away with this injustice. It could make the NCAA Selection Committee's SoCon pick an either/or proposition. If a league is going to get only one team, let it pick either the tourney champ or regular-season winner, depending on which team's body of work -- including its last 10 games -- is most deserving.

With the SoCon men, there's already a slight variation on this. If you win your league's regular season -- as Davidson did -- you receive an automatic bid to the NIT if you fail to win the league tournament. It's a nice consolation prize, but it should work the other way around.

If you win your tournament but are seen as the inferior team in the eyes of the selection committee, you receive an automatic NIT bid -- as well as hosting the first game -- but the regular-season champ goes to the NCAA tournament.

It could certainly be argued that this would lessen the appeal of conference tournaments, but it shouldn't. In leagues where two or three teams are barely separated by overall and conference records, as well as RPI, the tournament would remain the final factor. This rule is more for the team that comes from nowhere to get hot for three days in March and rob an otherwise deserving league champ of a bid.

And before anyone breaks out the hankies for that conference Cinderella, you think Will Wade wouldn't relish a home NIT game against an SEC or ACC school this season?

But Foster and his Mocs should never have to worry about such blips. They ran the table in the SoCon. Despite the automatic hits their RPI takes from being a part of a weak league such as the Southern, they're still inside the top 50.

This week shouldn't matter to them. Especially this season. That it does needs to be changed for both the men and women.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.