Contenders get set for March Madness

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An annual feature of March Madness is the conferences’ post-season tournaments, for which the winner gets the NCAA automatic bid. 

“It’s the best time of year. It’s March,” Minnesota Coach Lindsay Whalen declared Monday to reporters, including the MSR, during a scheduled pre-tourney conference call. “Now you win and advance,” she added.

This columnist nonetheless remains a non-fan of these post-season moneymakers, such as this week’s event in Indianapolis, the 23rd time the Big Ten tournament will be played there on Wednesday-Sunday. The winner gets the NCAA automatic bid

Yet it doesn’t seem right that, after a grueling round-robin regular season schedule such as the Big Ten’s, the first-place finisher doesn’t get the NCAA automatic set-aside. “I’m excited for us to be peaking at the right time,” Maryland Coach Brenda Frese said on her Terps (25-4, 16-2). 

They and Northwestern (26-3, 16-2) finished as conference co-regular season champions.  “It’s been a fun year,” said Wildcats Coach Joe McKeown, named Big Ten Coach of the Year on Monday.

Undoubtedly there will be other teams that will improve their overall records, which “gives you confidence going into the tournament,” Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder declares. Meanwhile, others ultimately prolong a long disappointing season in the win-or-go-home format with another ‘L’.

The 14 conference coaches spoke to reporters on Monday, including the MSR, on the scheduled pre-tournament media call. Six teams are riding into Indy this week on extended winning streak: NW (9), Maryland (14), Northwestern (9), Indiana (3), Rutgers (3) and Michigan State (2). “It will be an amazing tournament,” Bluder predicted.

Penn State, losers of 14 straight games, and Minnesota, Wednesday’s second first-round matchup, have similar objectives. The Lions (7-22, 1-17) want to extend their sub-.500 season at least another game. The post-season hopes of the Gophers (15-14, 5-13), whose losing streak is now at six after Sunday’s 55-point defeat at home to Maryland, are waning as they scramble to stay above .500. A loss Wednesday can seriously dash such hopes. 

“Thankfully we have a chance on Wednesday to redeem ourselves,” Whalen admitted.  Asked if her team will accept a WNIT bid if offered, Whalen told the MSR she will worry about that later as her focus now is on Penn State.

Auggies edged out

Despite a second consecutive MIAC runners-up finish and ranking in the top 20 all year, the Augsburg women’s basketball team once again was denied an NCAA Division III at-large bid, it was announced Monday. They finished 22-5 (17-3 MIAC) to Bethel, the league’s regular-season champs, who defeated the Auggies by a basket last Saturday in the MIAC tournament title game and earned the NCAA automatic bid.    

MIAC Assistant Commissioner BJ Pickard told the MSR he hoped that both clubs would be selected along with St. Thomas, also a top-20 team bypassed for post-season play. He liked how Augsburg has transformed the league diversity-wise: “It’s good to see change in our conference—good women’s basketball,” he said.