With a month left before the NCAA women’s tournament, it’s already been a great season for some mid-major programs. Now they hope to carry that success into March.
Eight non-traditional powers have been in The Associated Press Top 25, including five this past week — the most since 2011. The class of the group has been No. 16 Princeton.
The Ivy League school is the last unbeaten team in women’s basketball and is in good position to be the 15th team to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated. Eight of those have won the national championship — all power schools.
The Tigers aren’t the only mid-major to have had great success this season. Chattanooga accomplished a rare feat, knocking off Stanford and Tennessee in the same season. Florida Gulf Coast earned its first ranking. George Washington has returned to the Top 25 after being absent for a few years.
“I think it shows our game is growing, our coaches are growing, there are more good coaches than years past,” Princeton coach Courtney Banghart said. “You can be from Princeton and have a historic season, you can be from Chattanooga and have a historic season. It’s not always about the traditional powers.”
Despite success during the regular season, getting ranked hasn’t translated to deep runs in the NCAA tournament for mid-majors. There have been strong programs recently like Xavier, Marist, Wisconsin-Green Bay and Gonzaga, but out of that group only the Zags were able to make it to the regional finals, in 2011. They were buoyed by playing in front of their home crowd in Spokane that season.
Since 2001, when Jackie Stiles led Southwest Missouri State to the Final Four, no non-power conference team has reached the national semifinals. During the same span, eight men’s programs from non-power conferences have reached the Final Four.
Stiles’ team wasn’t the only mid-major to have success that year. Xavier and Louisiana Tech also made the regional finals. But not many have had such success since. Only three mid-major schools have advanced that far, including Gonzaga. Old Dominion did it in 2002 and Xavier also made it back to the Elite Eight in 2010.
“The challenge on our end is that nobody leaves earlier, which makes it a little bit harder,” said Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, who has had led his team to seven titles during that span. “It’s harder for mid-majors to get to the Final Four in women’s basketball — much harder in women’s basketball. The teams you have to beat are stocked with seniors and juniors. They didn’t leave because there’s nowhere to go.”
Auriemma has been impressed with Princeton this season. The Tigers have made the NCAAs in three of the past four seasons but have yet to win a tournament game.
“I was reading the paper today and I looked and Princeton was (around) top 15 in the poll,” he said. “When was the last time Princeton was (around) top 15 in the poll? Most people in America were shocked at that — shocked at that — yet if you’ve seen them play, there are a lot of teams in the top 10 that don’t want Princeton in their bracket in the NCAA tournament.”
ESPN.com columnist Graham Hays has been ranking the mid-major programs every two weeks for the past seven years. He’s been impressed with this season’s group.
“I think it’s been deeper this year than it has been in the years I’ve been doing it,” Hays said. “I’m not sure there’s a team out there that would be among the best mid-majors that I’ve seen over the years. While the top might not be as strong as it has been, the depth of the whole field has been stronger than it’s been in a while.”
Maybe that depth can translate to more NCAA tournament success.
Associated Press Writer Pat Eaton-Robb in Storrs, Connecticut, contributed to his report.
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