The University of Maine women’s basketball team waited excitedly Monday night to find out where and against whom its 2014-2015 season would continue.
Coach Richard Barron’s Black Bears, who on March 8 were ousted from the America East Women’s Basketball Championship with a semifinal loss to Hartford, earned a spot in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament by virtue of winning the conference regular-season title.
The WNIT field was to be announced sometime after 11 p.m. Monday after organizers constructed their 64-team bracket with teams that did not qualify for the NCAA tournament.
My first inclination was to view the WNIT as a consolation prize for teams such as UMaine that were not able to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament. The reality is, it is the best chance the program has to win a “national championship.”
Division I women’s basketball, like most major sports at that level, is dominated by teams from the power conferences — the Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, ACC, Pac-10, Big East and so forth.
Consider that in the 33 years the NCAA has sponsored a Division I women’s basketball championship (1982-2014), only 14 teams have won a national title. Connecticut and Tennessee head the list with 9 and 8, respectively.
Further, there have been few title-game appearances by teams not among the big-time conferences. Old Dominion University, then of the Sun Belt Conference, won a national championship in 1985 and another Sun Belt school, Western Kentucky, was the runner-up in 1992.
And for the “asterisk” entry, Division II Cheney State was the national runner-up to Division I Louisiana Tech in the first-ever title game in 1982. That was a different era.
Playing in the NCAA tournament is a preseason goal for virtually every team in the country. The reality for mid-major programs such as UMaine and its America East counterparts is, the “Big Dance” is usually going to be a brief interlude.
America East women’s teams have made 25 NCAA postseason appearances since Vermont became the first to earn a bid in 1992. Conference representatives have a 4-25 (.138) combined record and none has advanced past the second round (the final 32).
Even though the WNIT also features many quality teams, it might provide UMaine with a more realistic chance to make some noise on a national scale. The tournament is played on home courts, which could enable the Black Bears to host a game or two.
And theoretically UMaine should be able to approach the WNIT with a “nothing-to-lose” attitude and play with less anxiety and more confidence, as it did during the regular season.
Granted, America East teams have not fared much better in WNIT play. In 16 appearances, conference teams are 7-17 record, but Vermont did reach the quarterfinals in 2002.
So, rather than look at the WNIT as some sort of consolation prize for winning the America East regular-season title, UMaine should instead approach the opportunity with tremendous enthusiasm and passion.
An extended run in the WNIT could be the most significant accomplishment in program history.