Does South Dakota Deserve an At-Large Berth in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament?
It's becoming a regular March occurrence on the local women's college basketball scene - a pair of very talented and evenly matched South Dakota and South Dakota State teams going head-to-head in the finals of the Summit League Tournament to see which team will grab the conference's automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Four times in the last five seasons it's been the Coyotes and Jackrabbits in a one-game Sioux Falls showdown for all the marbles, and all four of those times it's been SDSU cutting down the nets at the end of the day.
But almost as quickly as the dust settles on championship day we move into phase two of the new March routine around here - the debate about whether the Summit League deserves two teams in the NCAA's 64-team field.
That discussion reached fever pitch last season after South Dakota ran the table during the conference's regular season before another championship game disappointment courtesy of South Dakota State.
After that loss, the NCAA selection committee deemed the Coyotes unworthy of an at-large berth due to a lack of marquee wins outside Summit League play and USD settled for an automatic berth in the WNIT, where they won three games before bowing out to TCU in the quarterfinals.
This season it may be more difficult for the committee to say no to the Coyotes.
In 2018-19, South Dakota got those big-time wins during the non-conference schedule, beating a pair of Top 25 teams (#23 Iowa State and #22 Missouri) in the span of 17 days.
The Coyotes then went out and won 12 of their first 13 games in league play, including a double-overtime victory over eventual conference champ SDSU.
That stretch vaulted USD into the national rankings for the first time in school history as the Coyotes rose as high as #23 in both the AP Top 25 and the USA Today Coaches Top 25. That hadn't been accomplished by a Summit League team in a decade.
When you dive deeper into the numbers, USD's case for inclusion in this year's tournament becomes even more compelling.
As we currently stand, South Dakota is one of only 18 teams in the country with 26 or more wins against Division I opponents this season.
When you stick those numbers into the computer, the Coyotes' Rating Percentage Index (RPI) puts them at number-38 in all of D1.
Speaking of RPI, three of USD's wins have come against teams ranked in the top ten percent nationally (#11 Iowa State, #26 SDSU, #31 Missouri), while four of the Coyotes' five losses have come to teams in the top 50 (#16 Drake, #26, SDSU, and #46 Indiana).
In all reality, there really are only two reasons why South Dakota's name won't be included when the NCAA reveals this year's tournament field Monday (March 18) night.
And the Coyotes have no control over either.
First, South Dakota's chances of grabbing an at-large berth greatly depend on how the other conference tournaments play out. The more upsets by teams with less impressive resumes than USD means fewer spots available. It is a numbers game after all.
Second, history is not on South Dakota's side.
The Mid-Continent Conference/Summit League has been playing women's basketball for 27 seasons and has only put a pair of teams in the NCAA Tournament once, 25 years ago, when Northern Illinois and Green Bay made the field in 1994.
Given that, it might be easy for some narrow-minded folks on the selection committee to dismiss the Summit League as just another mid-major conference deserving of only one spot in the field.
Let's hope that's not the case.