November 13, 2012

Welcome to the Sweet 16, Part 1: the Women

By Christan Shirk

Brandeis women into the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history.
Photo by John Risley

Some are familiar faces; some are new to the party. Let's get to know the women's teams that make up this year's Sweet 16.

Who has a sweet tooth?  Who is getting their first bite?

Eight of the women’s teams in the Sweet 16 accomplished the same feat last year.  In fact, three of the teams, Messiah, Johns Hopkins, and Wheaton (Ill.), are here for at least the fourth straight year, meaning their players know nothing less. Emory has advanced past the opening weekend of the tournament for the third season in a row while four others, Ithaca, Washington U., Hardin-Simmons, and Concordia-Moorhead, have reached Sectionals for the third time in the last four years.  Those eight teams, and even Cortland State who is back for a second straight time, should not be over-awed nor are they likely to be satisfied. 

Emory, however, is still seeking their first Sweet 16 victory in this their sixth try, as their advancement to the Elite 8 in 2010 came courtesy of a penalty kick shootout.  Concordia-Moorhead, who has made six of the last seven tournaments, is also seeking their first win at this stage after coming up short in both 2009 and 2011.  Can this be the year these two programs set a new precedent for their respective programs?

Conversely, Messiah, Wheaton (Ill.) and Ithaca reached the women’s Final Four a year ago.  Hardin-Simmons was the 2010 champion and Washington U. was runner-up in 2009.  Johns Hopkins has made the Elite 8 twice in 2009 and 2010 and Cortland State did as well last year, but neither has ever reached the Final Four.  The players on these teams will call on that deep tournament experience to try to live up to the high standards their programs have set.

Lynchburg’s seniors not only reached the Sweet 16 as freshmen in 2009, they advanced to the Final Four.  It was the program’s sixth Sweet 16 in nine years, going a step further into the Elite 8 in 2001 and 2007.  Wheaton (Mass.) has made thirteen straight tournament appearances, the first six of them resulting in five Sweet 16’s, continuing on to the Elite 8 in 2002 and 2003 and the Final Four in 2004.  But this is the program first return to this stage in seven years. Loras is the twelfth and final women’s team to have reached the Sweet 16 previously, having done so in 2003 and 2010, but did not register a win either time.

Four women’s teams make their first Sweet 16 appearance: Brandeis, Carnegie Mellon, Misericordia, and MIT.  Carnegie Mellon is participating in it’s first-ever NCAA tournament and not just “happy to be there”.  Can their NCAA debut get even better?  MIT had never won an NCAA game prior to this year, appearing in their third tournament, all in the last 4 years.  Misericordia went one-and-out in four tournament appearances from 2002 to 2006, but finally got their first victory in the big dance last season after a four year absence.  Brandeis only had to wait two years to get back into the tournament after waiting twenty-two years between the first NCAA appearance in 1988 and their second in 2010.

How did they punch their tickets to the big dance?

How How many of the Sweet 16 punched their own ticket with an AQ-winning conference championship?  How many had to wait for the committtee’s invite?  Let’s have a look.

AQ via Conference Tournament (9): Concordia-Moorhead, Cortland State, Hardin-Simmons, Ithaca, Loras, Lynchburg, Messiah, Misericordia, and Wheaton (Ill.)

AQ via Regular Season Standings (1): Washington U.

At-large Pool C Berth (6): Brandeis, Carnegie Mellon, Emory, Johns Hopkins, MIT, and Wheaton (Mass.)

And what about regular season finish?  Do the sixteen teams really represent the best of their respective conferences?  Nine finished first in their conference and another six finished behind other tournament-bound teams.  Only Cortland State would fit the bill as a team that wasn’t even supposed to be in the tournament much less in the Sweet 16. 

1st Place in Regular Season Standings (9): Concordia-Moorhead (MIAC), Hardin-Simmons (ASC), Ithaca (Empire 8), Johns Hopkins (Centennial), Loras (IIAC), Messiah (Commonwealth), Misericordia (Freedom), MIT* (NEWMAC), Washington U. (UAA)     (* first place tie, lost tie-breaker)

2nd Place (2): Carnegie Mellon (UAA), Wheaton (Ill.) (CCIW)

3rd Place (3): Emory (UAA), Lynchburg (ODAC), Wheaton (Mass.) (NEWMAC)

4th Place (1): Cortland State (SUNYAC)

5th Place (1): Brandeis (UAA)

Power conferences or overrated?

Four conferences got two or more at-large berths in addition to their automatic berth.  How did those conferences perform?  In hind-sight, were the extra selections justified?  You decide.

University Athletic Association (UAA): Washington U. (AQ), Brandeis, Carnegie Mellon, Emory

All four UAA teams are still alive, having gone a perfect 8-0-0 while outscoring opponents 21 to 3 in registering six shutouts.  They were extended to overtime in both games that goals were conceded, but managed the game-winner before going to penalty kicks.  That kind of success begs the question: how would UAA’s fourth place team, Chicago, have fared if invited?  They finished higher than Brandies in the conference and their four conference wins were more than third place Emory.  The difference is that Chicago lost instead of tied both in and out of conference to finish with an overall record of 12-6-0.  But all loses were by one-goal, five of them to ranked teams that made the tournament, four of whom are in the Sweet 16.

New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC ): Williams (AQ), Amherst, Bowdoin, Middlebury

Despite three of the four teams reaching day two, none of the NESCAC teams have survived the opening weekend with Amherst’s first round loss to Lasell being perhaps the biggest upset of the tournament.  Their combined record is a disappointing 2-4-1 as they were outscored 8 to 6 with each team suffering one shutout.  It’s certainly a let-down from last year when all three participating NESCAC teams advanced to the Sweet 16, Amherst and Williams picking up one more win to reach the Elite 8.

New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC): Montclair State (AQ), Rowan, TCNJ

Likewise the NJAC came up empty when it was all said and done.  All three won in the first round with Rowan edging the favored Virginia Wesleyan, but the second round was not kind as long-time powerhouse TCNJ couldn’t score on upstart MIT in 106 minutes, and the other two slumped to two-goal loses.  They outscored their opponents by a combined 12-9, but half of their goals came from TCNJ’s 6-0 whitewashing of CCNY.  It’s the second straight year without an NJAC representative in the Sweet 16, something TCNJ single-handedly kept from happening for thirteen years from 1998 to 2010. 

New England Men’s and Women’s Athletic Conference (NEWMAC):  Springfield (AQ), MIT, Wheaton (Mass.)

It was a challenge and far from emphatic, but two of the three NEWMAC teams are in the Sweet 16.  Conference champion Springfield went one-and-out while Wheaton (Mass.) needed 13 seconds of overtime and MIT needed penalty kicks to get out of the first round.  MIT broke a scoreless deadlock after 106 minutes in round two to give the conference a 3-1-1 combined record with the two advancing teams posting shutouts in all four of their games.  The conference had gone six years without a representative in the Sweet 16, and now have two.  In fact, before this year, only two schools from the conference had reached the Sweet 16 since the tournament was of a size that that meant something—Wellesley, twice, and Wheaton (Mass.), five times—and never the same year.

Putting the Women's Top 25 to the test

How well did the Women’s Top 25 panel do ranking teams this season?  Well, tournament results are not really a fair measure of the rankings as upsets do happen and bracketing can force top teams into early encounters.  But it is still fun to see how the Top 25 stacks up to the Sweet 16.

On the women’s side, eleven of the Sweet 16 teams were ranked in the week 10 Top 25, the final ranking prior to the tournament.  Six came from the Top 10, although to be fair it must be pointed out that two Top 10 teams lost in the second round to higher ranked teams.  In fact, out of the fourteen ranked teams that did not survive the weekend, eight lost to teams ranked above them while the remaining six lost to unranked teams.

Was Concordia-Moorhead underrated by the Women's Top 25 panel?
Photo by Ryan Coleman,

Did the Top 25 voters completely overlook any of the Sweet 16 teams?  Cortland State was the only unranked Sweet 16 team to not receive a single vote all season.  Cortland was fourth place in the SUNYAC at 5-2-2 before conference tournament wins over the 5-, 1-, and 2-seeds gave them an automatic berth despite just a 12-4-6 overall record.  Johns Hopkins was ranked all season except the final week when a conference final loss left them with four losses on the season. Brandeis was ranked from week 2 through week 6 before a two-loss week that included a 6-1 drubbing cooled voters’ interest and a loss and tie two weeks later prevented any renewed consideration. MIT, with an overall regular season record of 13-3-2, received votes in weeks 8 and 10. Concordia-Moorhead just missed out on being ranked in weeks 2 and 3 and also received votes in weeks 6 through 10.  Concordia’s only loss since September 22 was a 3-4 loss at Wheaton (Ill.), which suggests that they might be the biggest oversight by the panel. ranked teams went 19-6-0 in the first round, including two head-to-head matches.  Removing those games and the record becomes 17-4-0.  In the second round, ranked teams went 10-5-3, but when you remove the five head-to-head matches the performance becomes a more expected 6-1-1.  Combining the two rounds, ranked teams went 23-5-1 (.810) against unranked teams.

And how did compare to the NSCAA rankings?  There were only two differences in teams ranked entering the tournament, so the results are similar.  But the NSCAA did rank Concordia-Moorhead at No. 14 and thus had one more ranked team make the Sweet 16 team.   Their ranked teams amassed two more wins versus unranked teams, but by percentage the 25-6-2 (.758) record versus unranked teams is slightly lower.

Comments or feedback for the author?  Email Christan Shirk.

Jim Matson, Christan Shirk, Ryan Harmanis, and other staff writers and contributors help cover the games and results across the nation.

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