By Gordon Mann
If you’re going to sign up for the Bracket Challenge run by our friends at d3photography.com, recent history has a hint for whom you should pick to win the 2018 NCAA Division III women’s basketball tournament that begins tonight.
Pick Amherst or Wartburg. That’s it. No one else.
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While Division III men’s basketball hasn’t had an undefeated champion since Bo Ryan coached UW-Platteville in 1998, the women’s side has produced four consecutive undefeated national champions, and five if you count the 2015 title vacated by Thomas More.
If the past is prologue, then Amherst or Wartburg are the only two teams that could win the title this year. Amherst is 60-0 since its national semifinal loss to Thomas More in 2016. Wartburg went 27-0 this season and is trying to become the first IIAC team to win an NCAA Division III basketball title.
Of course, the past isn’t always a perfect predictor. You could make a good case for other teams to win the title, even if you don't have a family member or classmate playing for them. Thomas More has what might have been the single most impressive win of the season, and Rochester beat Thomas More. Bowdoin narrowly lost to Amherst in the regular season, and the Polar Bears were playing their second game on the road in less than 24 hours. Tufts beat Bowdoin and Rochester and narrowly lost to Amherst twice Hope has had a string of wins that suggest a team of destiny. Trine beat the Flying Dutch and narrowly lost to Amherst. There are more than two teams that can win the title this year.
So let’s break down the 2018 Tournament bracket in our usual way. For each quadrant we’ll pick the best first-round matchup, a surprise team that could win both games on the road this weekend, a disappointment that may not live up to its seeding or ranking this weekend and a projected winner.
As usual the only guarantee for these picks is that some will be very wrong. Let’s do it.
Amherst quadrant (top left)
|Amherst hasn't lost a game since the 2016 NCAA Tournament semifinals.
File photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com
Becker (18-10) at No. 1 Amherst (27-0); Mass-Boston (25-3) vs. St. Joseph's (Maine) (27-1)
SUNY Old Westbury (23-3) at No. 22 Montclair State (23-3); Albright (20-7) vs. No. 23 Gettysburg (25-2)
Stevens (15-12) at No. 16 Rochester (21-4); MIT (18-9) vs. No. 17 Marymount (24-3)
Hilbert (21-6) at TCNJ (21-6); University of New England (23-5) vs. Rochester Tech (21-6)
Best first round matchup: Three of tonight's four neutral court games look pretty juicy, but the juiciest is Albright versus Gettysburg. Albright’s starting lineup is really good. The Lions have good low post scoring from Devan Horka and a versatile playmaker in senior wing Alysha Lofton. Same goes for Gettysburg, though the Bullets' best player is senior forward and Centennial Conference MVP Emily Gibbons. If this were the second game of the weekend, Gettysburg would have a slight advantage because of its depth. But Albright should be rested and ready for this one.
Most likely to surprise: Marymount could win both games in Rochester’s gym this weekend. Rochester's best players are 6-foot-2 All-American center Alexandra Leslie and 6-foot-1 Lauren Deming who's a matchup nightmare. But Marymount has talented size too with Nicole Viscuso at center, and the Saints have the CAC Player of the Year Leah Hurst in their back court. If the Saints can keep that game in the 50s or 60s where they like it, they can advance to the sectionals.
Most likely to disappoint: It wouldn’t be a major upset for TCNJ to lose this weekend because that pod is balanced and the Lions are a young team on the rise. But they are the most likely host to lose this weekend, particularly since whomever TCNJ draws on Saturday will have more NCAA Tournament experience than the Lions, including a close loss to Tournament hosts last year.
Who’s going to win: On paper this is a balanced bracket with three teams that finished first in the final regional rankings -- Amherst (Northeast), Montclair State (Atlantic) and Rochester (East). But, as the national rankings indicate, the Mammoths have a sizeable advantage over everyone else in this bracket, which would been better balanced with Tufts or Bowdoin in it. Marymount likes to play low scoring games and could hang with Amherst, just as conference mate Mary Washington did last year. But the Saints would likely have to beat Rochester and whoever comes out of the TCNJ pod just to get that chance. So Amherst is the favorite to advance to its eighth national semifinal.
Hope quadrant (bottom left)
|Can Hope continue its magical run of last-second and overtime wins in the NCAA Tournament?
Photo by Steven Herppich
Cornell (20-5) at No. 3 Hope (21-6); Wheaton (Ill.) (22-5) vs. Washingotn U. (18-7)
Valley Forge (15-8) at Randolph-Macon (22-5); Haverford (21-6) at No. 18 Christopher Newport (23-4)
Oglethorpe (21-7) at No. 4 Thomas More (26-1); Juniata (22-5) vs. Piedmont (23-5)
UW-Superior (23-4) at No. 11 UW-Whitewater (24-3); Gustavus Adolphus (22-6); vs. No. 20 Rose-Hulman (24-3)
Best first round matchup: Last season Gustavus Adolphus entered the 2017 NCAA Tournamet with national expectations of success and a tough first round matchup. Despite being ranked 14th in the country, Gustavus drew No. 11 DePauw in the first round. The Gusties trailed for most of what ended as a 67-57 loss. This year the Gusties don't have a national ranking entering the Tournament, but they have much of last season's roster and once again they draw a nationally ranked foe. Rose-Hulman has impressed as much in the games they've lost (close defeats to Hope, Illinois Wesleyan and DePauw) as the many they've won. If you like high scoring, this game isn't for you. If you like close games, it should be.
Most likely to surprise: Christopher Newport should advance through its pod at Randolph-Macon. The Captains were national semifinalists last year and are the only ranked team in this pod. It would be a surprise if the Wheaton/Wash U winner knocked off Hope or Gustavus/Rose-Hulman winner beat UW-Whitewater, but I don't think that's happening.
Most likely to disappoint: The WIAC is one of the best conferences in Division III women's basketball, but its representatives haven't fared well in recent NCAA Tournaments. Since 2015 only one of six WIAC teams has made it past the first weekend (UW-Oshkosh last year) and none reached the Elite 8. I don't think Whitewater is going to lose this weekend with the balance and senior leadership that Brooke Trewyn, Andrea Meinert and Malia Smith bring. But the Warhawks are the most vulnerable first weekend host, again setting aside Randolph-Macon which would be an underdog against CNU.
Who’s going to win: Hope won so many close games against Calvin and Trine this season that it feels like the Flying Dutch have a little magic in them. They also have a nicely balanced roster with Francesca Buchanan in the post, Madison Geers on the perimeter and freshman Kenedy Schoonveld doing a little bit of everything. Thomas More has three stars of its own in Abby Owings, Madison Temple and Nikki Kiernan who match up well against Hope's trio. The Saints once again rampaged through the PAC and haven't forgotten last year's NCAA Tournament loss to Hope. Given the choice between the team that has figured out how to win close games and the team that hasn't had to, I'll take the former to win a close game in the sectional finals. Hope advances.
Scranton quadrant (Top right)
|Tufts guard Lauren Dillon and her senior teammates are 12-0 in the regional and sectional rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
Photo by Steve Frommell, d3photography.com
Keuka (21-5) at No. 10 Scranton (26-1); Cabrini (25-2) vs. Brooklyn (24-3)
Husson (19-9) at No. 5 Bowdoin (24-2); FDU-Florham (21-6); vs. Skidmore (18-9)
Oberlin (21-7) at No. 15 Messiah (25-2); Roger Williams (23-5) vs. Emory and Henry (22-6)
Westfield State (19-7) at No. 8 Tufts (23-4); SUNY Geneseo (25-2) vs. Ithaca (20-7)
Best first round matchup: All four neutral court games should be close, but let's go with FDU-Florham and Skidmore. The Devils have two potent scorers in Kendrea Williams and Gabrielle Harris and Bria Smith is a hard worker around the rim, plus FDU-Florham always plays with an edge. After a mediocre first semester for Skidmore, the Thoroughbreds rallied down the stretch, winning 12 of 13 in the Liberty League. Defense is Skidmore's calling card and the Thoroughbreds have three-time conference MVP Kelly Donnelly in the post. Whichever team dictates tempo wins the game.
Most likely to surprise: No one. If the Ithaca/SUNY Geneseo winner were playing at Scranton or Messiah, I'd give them a fighting chance. But I don't like their chances against Tufts in Medford now that the Jumbos are locked into postseason mode.
Most likely to disappoint: Again I don't see any of the hosts losing this weekend. Tufts has made the national semifinals four years in a row, so anything short of a trip to the national semifinals will feel like a down year. Scranton's probably the most logical choice, since the Lady Royals will likely host next weekend and usually have a rowdy crowd behind them. I don't know if losing to Bowdoin or Tufts in the sectionals qualifies as a disappointment.
Who’s going to win: Tufts went to Montclair State's holiday tournament in late December and something looked a little off. The Jumbos lost to Albright, which seemed like a stunning upset before I fully appreciated Albright's talent. Then the Jumbos lost to Bowdoin by 13 about a week later and it looked like they were a step off their usual pace of national title contenders. But the Jumbos looked like themselves again last weekend, avenging that loss to Bowdoin in the NESCAC semis and pushing Amherst to the limit in the title game. Tufts All-American Melissa Baptista played some of the best basketball of her college career at Scranton two years ago and Erica DeCandido played well in the NESCAC tournament after missing the final five games of the regular season. Tufts wins the rubber match with Bowdoin for yet another trip to the national semifinals.
Wartburg quadrant (lower right)
|Having already won IIAC player of the year, Wartburg point guard Katie Sommer has a chance to win some bigger awards over the next couple weeks.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
Webster (20-6) at No. 2 Wartburg (27-0); No. 24 St. Benedict vs. No. 13 George Fox
Marietta (24-4) at No. 14 Illinois Wesleyan (24-3); No. 7 Trine (24-3) vs. No. 12 DePauw (25-2)
No. 25 Trinity (Texas) (23-3) at Texas-Dallas (23-4); No. 19 Whitman (22-4) vs. East Texas Baptist (22-6)
Chapman (23-4) at No. 6 St. Thomas (25-2); Wisconsin Lutheran (24-3) vs. No. 9 Chicago (23-2)
Best first round matchup: Holy moly, is this bracket stacked. Even three of the teams that play true road games against regional hosts on Friday night are really good. If I had a jet and a time machine, I'd be in Waverly, Iowa for that pod. Or maybe I'd go to Bloomington, Ill. for that one. Or St. Paul for that one. Every game except Wartburg/Webster looks like it could be really good, and the Knights certainly earned a little easier first round opponent. Forced to take one pod, I'll take Trine/DePauw.
Most likely to surprise: Ready for a bizarre prediction? Two of the four hosts lose this weekend. Wartburg survives in nailbiter against George Fox and St. Thomas advances. Whitman and Trine have long, but happy trips home late Saturday night or early Sunday morning.
Most likely to disappoint: DePauw lost to Wittenberg at home in the NCAC semifinals and then Wittenberg got blasted by NCAC three-seed Oberlin the next day. That loss dropped DePauw from a likely hosting position, maybe for both weekends, into the toughest game in the entire first round. The Tigers can still put last week's loss behind them with two wins this weekend, but anything short of that is going to be a relatively down way to finish the season.
Who's going to win: Beats me. Wartburg seems to be in decent position to host next weekend, as it should be considering their record, but the Knights could also lose on Saturday night. Let's say the Knights get through this weekend, host the sectionals next weekend and find a way to beat St. Thomas in a thriller in the Elite 8, the crowning achievement for the team that had a Cinderella run to the NCAA semifinals two years ago.
So that leaves us with Amherst versus Hope on one side and Wartburg versus Tufts on the other.
Amherst and Hope have a common opponent (Trine) which provides a more objective point of comparison than we usually get. Amherst beat Trine on a neutral court at the D3hoops.com Classic back in December. Hope split the regular season series with the Thunder and then beat them in overtime in the MIAA title game. Amherst's neutral court win was a little more decisive so the Mammoths beat Hope to advance to the title game.
The last time Wartburg and Tufts played, the Knights couldn't score on the Jumbos. Literally -- they scored no points in the first quarter of the 2016 national semifinal game. Wartburg has improved since then and the Jumbos don't have a commanding presence in the post as in prior years. So Wartburg beats Tufts to set up a battle between the last two undefeated teams in Division III basketball.
I started the season with Amherst No. 1 on my Top 25 ballot, even though on paper other teams had more coming back. And the Mammoths have stayed there even though their margins of victory are smaller this year than last. Could Amherst could win a shoot out if it had to? The best teams its beaten -- Trine, Bowdoin, Tufts -- are also defensive minded. Wartburg is more potent offensively than those teams.
But asking Wartburg to beat five highly ranked teams with very different styles in a row is asking a lot, especially when the last one is the best defensive team in the country and the defending national champions. Again, it's no guarantee that Wartburg even gets out of this weekend.
So Amherst is the safe pick and the right one for national champions. A third crown for Amherst, its first as Mammoths.