2016 women's tournament preview

More news about: Amherst | George Fox | Thomas More | Tufts
Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis will host the 2016 Division III women's basketball championship game.
File photo by VisitIndy.com 

By Gordon Mann

It’s time for our annual preview of the NCAA Division III women’s basketball tournament. This is the space where we pick a first round toss-up, a Cinderella, a potential disappointment and a predicted winner for each bracket. The Cinderella is a team that can win two games on the road in the first round. The potential disappointment is a team that won’t live up to its hosting privileges or its national ranking. I've provided links to previous tournament previews so you can take my predictions with the appropriately sized grain of salt.

Before we do that, here are a few basics you should know if you’re following this tournament for the first time.

  • Our Top 25 poll has no bearing on the tournament matchups. That doesn’t mean the Top 25 poll is meaningless or the tournament matchups are bad. They’re just two different things. The Top 25 poll is the collective opinion, across a panel of voters, of which teams are the best in the country. The tournament matchups are a reflection of the regional rankings, which use more specific mathematical criteria than most Top 25 voters do, and the financial constraints that the NCAA Tournament selection committee is given. They aren’t given the budget to fly the four lowest seeds to the four highest seeds for games on Friday night. So we’re going to get matchups of Top 25 teams in the early rounds, including three on the very first night of the tournament.
  • Who hosts the first weekend isn't indicative of who will host the second weekend. Schools that have their men’s and women’s teams in the NCAA Tournament this weekend can’t host games for both, even if their teams deserve it. In even number years the men’s teams host the first weekend and the women’s teams host the second. So don’t be surprised if Amherst or St. Thomas hosts the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games, assuming they win this weekend.
  • The tournament schedule is different this year because the NCAA is celebrating the 35th anniversary of NCAA women’s basketball. Normally the Division III tournament has three weekends of Friday-Saturday games with the national semifinals and championship game at the same site. This year the national semifinals will be played at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio on Saturday, March 19 and then the national championship game will be 16 days later on Monday, April 4 in Indianapolis. The Division III and Division II title games will be played at the same site as the Division I Final Four.

This is the same format that the men used in 2013 when the Division I, II and III national championships were played together in Atlanta. While there are some drawbacks to this approach, like the long layoff between the national semifinals and the championship game, it elevates the opportunity to play for a national championship to an undeniably unique experience.

I attended the men’s Division III championship game and Division I Final Four weekend in Atlanta, and it was the coolest sporting event I’ve attended. The festival-like atmosphere that surrounded the weekend, the opportunity to rub shoulders with coaches, players and media members that you usually only see on television, the chance to play a basketball game in an NBA arena – these are things that just can’t be duplicated by any Division III host city, as great a job as places like Salem do.  I don’t expect the crowd for women’s college basketball to be as massive as it was for the men in 2013, though I lived in Connecticut long enough to know the passion of that particular fan base. But even if this years’ experience in Indianapolis is a fraction of the one in Atlanta, it’ll be fantastic.

On with the predictions.

Thomas More bracket (Upper left)

Abby Owings' ball-handling ability makes it hard to slow down Thomas More's offense with a full court press.
File photo by Robert Youngs, d3photography.com 

La Roche (24-3) at Thomas More (27-0); Guilford (21-5) vs. Mount Union (20-7)
Mary Washington (24-3) at Maryville (Tenn.) (24-4); Lynchburg (24-4) vs. Birmingham-Southern (24-3)
Carnegie Mellon (19-6) at Hope (26-1); Ohio Northern (22-4) vs. Denison (23-4)
Greenville (20-7) at Washington U. (20-5); UW-Whitewater (20-5) vs. Bluffton (25-2)

First round toss up: The whole sectional at Mary Washington is toss-up. The teams have remarkably close winning percentages and you could make a case for any of them advancing to the Sweet 16. No. 18 Maryville hosting No. 19 Mary Washington is one of the three Top 25 showdowns on opening night and even their national rankings couldn’t be closer to each other. If this bracket was played at a neutral site, I’d give the advantage to the Eagles because they have more quality wins than any of the other three teams and they’ve already beaten Lynchburg once. But the games won’t be played on neutral court and Mary Washington’s game against the Hornets was the season opener. 

Possible Cinderella:
Whitewater has the best fit for a glass slipper in this bracket. The Warhawks started the season unranked and finished it uncertain whether they’d make the NCAA tournament, after losing to Eau Claire in the first round of their conference tournament. Whitewater teams often find their footing once they reach the NCAA playoffs and this Warhawk squad has several upperclassmen who are two seasons removed from run to the national championship game in 2014.

Possible disappointment: A couple weeks ago Hope was rolling toward the NCAA tournament with an undefeated record. Then the Flying Dutch lost to archrival Calvin in the regular season finale. They trailed Olivet at the half in the MIAA semifinals before rallying to win, and then beat Trine more convincingly in the MIAA final. Hope's most impressive non-conference win came way back in November and now it has the hardest of the four pods this weekend. The Flying Dutch are still the favorite to advance out of the weekend, but their hope of a national title could end quickly this weekend.

Predicted winner: Thomas More wasn't really tested in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference, but the Saints’ non-conference record included double-digit wins over CCIW co-champs Illinois Wesleyan, No. 22 Calvin, No. 14 Ohio Northern and Denison, with those last two coming without Sydney Moss. The defending national champions are the prohibitive favorites throughout the tournament.

Amherst bracket (Lower left)

Amherst doesn't have a mascot any more but it does have our approval as the likely winner of this bracket.
Amherst athletics file photo 

SUNY New Paltz (21-6) at Rowan (22-5); Eastern Connecticut (22-6) vs. Amherst (26-1)
SUNY-Old Westbury (23-5) at Stevens (21-6); FDU-Florham (21-6) vs. SUNY Geneseo (20-7)
Westfield State (20-7) at Bowdoin (20-6); Lehman (20-7) vs. New York University (18-7)
Johnson and Wales (24-3) at Rochester (20-5); Clarkson (22-5) vs. Stockton (21-6)

First round toss up:  When FDU-Florham played SUNY Geneseo last year, the Devils ran out to a 48-20 halftime lead and held a double-digit advantage throughout the second half. Both teams are different this year. FDU-Florham doesn’t have the Dayon sisters that powered their national championship run in 2014, but they do have Shalette Brown has 23 double-doubles in 27 games, tops in Division III. Geneseo didn’t dominate its conference this year like they did in 2015, but the Blue Knights did win at Rochester and they have the best rebounding margin in the SUNYAC (+11.5 per game), which is essential to beating the Devils. Whoever wins this game will advance out of this pod to the second weekend.

Possible Cinderella: The Amherst women should win two road games this weekend, but they’re only a road team because the Amherst men have hosting privileges for the first two rounds. The Florham/Geneseo winner would arguably be favored over Stevens, or at least they’ve had more NCAA tournament success than the Ducks. And Bowdoin’s matchup with New York University would be a tossup of at-large teams from power conferences. Stockton has the best chance as a true underdog to win two games on the road this weekend, if the Ospreys can find the consistency that eluded them for much of February. Set aside the walk-over wins against Ramapo and New Jersey City, and Stockton has alternated wins and losses since February 3. But the Ospreys have a talented front court in Sasha Williams and Najha Treadwell that would test Rochester’s super sophomore Alexandra Leslie.

Possible disappointment:  Again, Rochester is the only host this weekend where a loss could really be termed an upset. It would be an even bigger bummer for Rochester’s conference if the Yellowjackets and New York University were both knocked out of the tournament this weekend. The UAA is one of the best conferences in Division III women’s basketball and has had three or more teams ranked in the Top 25 for much of the regular season.

Predicted winner: Aside from the three undefeated teams in the field, Amherst has been the most dominant team in Division III women’s basketball. Amherst’s average margin of victory (27.9) is second only to Thomas More (40.3), and Amherst plays in a conference that put three teams in the NCAA tournament, plus it played two other NCAA tournament participants (Eastern Connecticut and Albright). A couple teams in this bracket can challenge Amherst, but if next weekend’s games take place at LeFrak Gymnasium, Amherst is the favorite.  

Scranton bracket (Upper Right)

Last year Michela North and Tufts reached the national semifinals by winning four games at home. They'll likely have to win four games on the road to reach the final four this year.
Tufts athletics file photo 

WPI (24-4) at Scranton (27-0); Cabrini (19-9) vs. Marymount (22-5)
St. John Fisher (22-4) at Muhlenberg (24-2); Christopher Newport (22-4) vs. St. Joseph’s (Maine) (23-5)
SUNYIT (23-5) at Montclair State (21-6); Husson (21-6) vs. Albright (25-2)
Moravian (19-7) at University of New England (25-3); Regis (24-3) vs. Tufts (23-3)

First round toss up: Marymount and Cabrini are destined to play a close game, if for no other reason than the final score will probably be in the low 50s. The Saints and Cavaliers both rank in the Top 40 in the country for fewest points allowed. Cabrini allows 53.9 points per game while Marymount yields just 47.1 points per game, fourth best in the nation. And while Cabrini is the underdog, the Cavs are better than their record suggests. Cabrini head coach Kate Pearson built a tough non-conference schedule with five NCAA tournament participants, including the bracket’s top seed Scranton.

Possible Cinderella: Tufts doesn’t qualify for the same reason that Amherst doesn’t. The Jumbos would likely be playing at home this weekend if Cousens Gym wasn’t occupied by the Tufts men. But there are plenty of other candidates. Christopher Newport and St. John Fisher are dangerous teams in Muhlenberg’s pod while Albright could definitely win two in North Jersey where Montclair State hosts. Let's say Christopher Newport and Albright both win two on the road this weekend.

Possible disappointment: Muhlenberg has had a great season and triple-double wonder Brandi Vallely is one of Division III's most dynamic players. But the Mules have the toughest pod of the weekend. First they draw St. John Fisher which was a really tough out in last year's tournament, losing in overtime at Tufts. If the Mules get past the Cardinals, Christopher Newport likely waits on Saturday night. No question that the Mules will have earned their spot in the Sweet 16 if they get that far. 

Predicted winner: Last year I picked Tufts to lose a close one at home to FDU-Florham in the Elite 8, and the Jumbos won. So this year let’s try the opposite – Tufts beats Scranton in a close one on the road in the Elite 8, giving the NESCAC two final four entrants.

"George Fox" bracket (Lower Right)

Justine Benner and George Fox are our pick to win the bracket and they'll pick up some nice frequent flyer miles along the way.
George Fox athletics file photo

DePauw (22-6) at UW-Stevens Point (20-7); St. Norbert (21-4) vs. George Fox (27-0)
UC Santa Cruz (15-11) at Texas-Tyler (27-1); Trinity (Texas) (22-5) vs. Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (22-5)
UW-Superior (24-3) at UW-Oshkosh (22-5); Wisconsin Lutheran (20-7) vs. Wartburg (19-7)
Wheaton (Ill.) (22-5) at UW-River Falls (22-5); Loras (19-8) vs. St. Thomas (24-3)

First round toss up: Friday night’s marquee matchup is in River Falls, Wisconsin where the WIAC champion Falcons host the CCIW co-champions Wheaton. That’s two top 20 teams playing in the first round. See what we mean about the Top 25 rankings not impacting seeding? Wheaton is one of the hardest teams to gauge in the bracket. The Thunder can look like a Top 10 team when they are hitting threes or they can look lost on offense and struggle to score.  River Falls won one of the toughest conferences in the country, but the Falcons also lost to two of their three toughest nonconference games.

Possible Cinderella: St. Thomas returned just one starter from last year’s Elite 8 squad and lost a whopping 74 percent of its scoring output from a year ago. This season the Tommies have flown under the radar after losing back-to-back games to St. Catherine and Wheaton in December. Or, to be more precise, they’ve cruised under the radar, winning 14 straight and both MIAC tournament games by comfortable margins.  They have a great inside-out attack with junior center Katie Langer, who was the MIAC Player of the Year, and Katie Stone who hit 74 three-pointers.

Possible disappointment: None are likely. Three WIAC teams host pods this weekend and Oshkosh is the only one that would qualify as an upset if it lost. The biggest disappointment would be an early flame out by Texas-Tyler which enters the tournament ranked sixth in the country, despite not having a single opponent that received votes in the most recent Top 25 poll. But the Patriots aren’t losing to UC Santa Cruz and they handled Trinity (Texas) at home earlier this year, if that’s their second round opponent.

Predicted winner: Kudos if you noticed the quotation marks around George Fox’s name in the section header above. The Bruins should be the bracket’s top seed, but they’re forced on the road by financial realities. For those NWC fans who’ve complained about having their teams face each other in the first round of the tournament every year, this is the unfortunate byproduct of just one NWC team making the tournament – it will be geographically isolated and headed on the road, even if it deserves home games. Next weekend is also set up to take place in Minnesota or Wisconsin, unless the tournament committee has some money stashed away for extra flights to Oregon. All that said, the Bruins went undefeated through a quality nonconference schedule and a good NWC slate, and they’re the pick to win this bracket.

The Final Four

I’ve got Thomas More, Amherst, Tufts and George Fox advancing to the national semifinals in Columbus, Ohio. You could swap out Scranton for Tufts or a bunch of teams for George Fox in that bracket, and the key question of the tournament would still be this – Can anyone stop Sydney Moss, Abby Owings and the rest of Thomas More from capping another perfect season with a national title?

Barring any injuries, I don’t think so. The Saints and George Fox emerge victorious from the national semifinals, take two weeks off and then have a rematch of last year’s national championship game, with Thomas More winning one more national title.

Enjoy the tournament.