Wiedmer: Lady Mocs deserve an at-large bid

Wiedmer: Lady Mocs deserve an at-large bid

March 7th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

UTC head coach Wes Moore instructs the Lady Mocs in the first half of a basketball game at McKenzie Area.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

Wes Moore knows the drill.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's basketball coach hasn't carved out one of the most impressive resumes in the history of his sport -- eight NCAA appearances in his first 14 UTC seasons, 10 years of 24 or more wins, the only coach in women's history to take teams to the post season at three different levels (Division I, II and III) -- without thinking ahead.

So even though logic would dictate that the Lady Mocs' early-season win over No. 9 Tennessee and their current 26-3 record would warrant an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament -- no matter what happens at this weekend's Southern Conference tourney -- Moore isn't buying it.

"I don't think you want to count on that," he said during Tuesday's media event at UTC's practice facility.

"We're playing well. But if you look at some of our scores, there's still a small margin for error. On several occasions we had to pull it out late in the game."

No one plays well all the time. Great as the NBA's defending champion Miami Heat have been, they've still lost 11 of 29 away from South Beach. So, yes, the Lady Mocs have fallen thrice -- by three at St. Mary's, to Southeastern Conference member Auburn and in overtime at Elon.

But perhaps it's better to see how well UTC responded in its rematch with Elon. It won 63-40.

Yet this is also the NCAA tourney we're talking about and the Southern Conference is regarded as no better than 27th among 31 leagues with automatic bids.

It is seen as so weak that Former Tennessee Lady Vols great and current ESPN analyst Kara Lawson labeled the SoCon a "Low major" in a Wednesday email.

She also wrote of the Lady Mocs' chances of an at-large bid: "I think it's a possibility, but I would lean toward the viewpoint that if they don't win the SoCon tourney, they will be on the outside looking in."

And they may, but if they are, it's an injustice of epic proportions and here's why:

Before UTC entered SoCon play for good in early January, it had an RPI of 26 and a Strength of Schedule of 75. No disrespect to the selection committee, but that's where any discussion of the Lady Mocs' at-large merits should begin and end.

No conference school -- be it Duke, Kentucky, Austin Peay or UTC -- can control the strength of its conference in a given season. What it can control is the schedule it plays outside its league.

And before someone cracks wise about the Lady Mocs joining a bigger league, not everyone can play in a BCS conference. If the NCAA is going to allow 347 schools to own Division I memberships for basketball, it's going to have to accept the fact that some leagues are going to be stronger than others.

That's why a league like the SEC had eight teams in last year's NCAA tournament (matching its 1999 total) and has placed as many as six in the field on seven other occasions between those two years.

Nor is there anything wrong with that as long as excellence -- not goodness, but greatness -- is recognized in lesser leagues. And by any measuring stick, this is a great UTC team, certainly the best Lady Mocs squad since the 2004 season, when they knocked off Rutgers in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

"They pay close attention to detail, like we did," said UTC assistant Katie Galloway Burrows , a star on that 2004 team. "These girls have shown that every game. And the Tennessee win gave them the same confidence we had. It's no longer, 'We hope we win.' It's 'We will win.'"

But let's take emotion out of it. Let's return to the RPI and schedule strength numbers of Dec. 9, when the Lady Mocs stood 7-1, having already beaten both UT and Alabama and narrowly lost at St. Mary's.

That RPI was 10. That strength of schedule was 23. After eight games, which was nearly 28 percent of the season. And that's not good enough to make the NCAA women's tourney as an at-large?

Noted Lawson: "Their win over Tennessee is what makes them a part of the at-large conversation. [But] it is always a challenge to compare a low major with an impressive record (26-3) with a middle-of-the-pack high major team (18-12)."

It shouldn't be. Just compare any high major's RPI and schedule strength after eight non-conference games against the Lady Mocs at that time. If there are enough of them with an RPI of 10 and SOS of 23 to bump out UTC, so be it. Otherwise, let the Lady Mocs in.

But just to be safe, UTC might be wise to win its ninth SoCon tourney in Moore's 15 years on the job, because winning that event delivers a NCAA bid every Lady Moc fan can count on.