WNIT not exactly bad consolation


There were long, hound-dog faces, wet eye sockets and a general gnashing of teeth Friday in Cleveland after the University of Toledo’s women dropped a semifinal game in the Mid-American Conference tournament.

It wasn’t merely the loss of a game, although the Rockets had experienced such a feeling only one other time since mid-November. It was the possible loss of an opportunity UT had been shooting for since season’s start.

The NCAA tournament is the Holy Grail for college basketball teams of all pedigrees. It is the show, the big dance, the ultimate chance for a player to test himself or herself against the very best.

At 27-3, with winning streaks of 11 and 15 games during the season, UT deserves a spot in the field. That doesn’t mean the Rockets are going to get one.

Toledo fans need only to consult with their friends some 25 miles south. At the end of the 2008-09 season, a Bowling Green team with 28 wins, including 25 in a row, lost in the MAC tournament championship game and did not get an at-large bid to the NCAA.

That was a BG program with some history and, you would think, some equity. Two seasons before, the Falcons made a run to the NCAA’s Sweet 16. They were a known commodity, but the NCAA selection committee could not have cared less.

Those folks don’t think much of mid-majors in general and the MAC in particular. Only twice in the league’s history, and not once in the past 16 seasons, has the MAC received a women’s at-large bid.

At times it has been a miscarriage of justice, although strength of schedule is usually the factor that swings those scales against the league. That may or may not do Toledo in, too.

If it does, the Rockets will get an automatic berth in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament by virtue of their regular-season MAC title.

And while I fully understand the cachet of the NCAA, I’m not sure the WNIT isn’t a better opportunity.

Toledo is itself the best example of that.

Two seasons ago, the Rockets became the only MAC team of any gender to win its final postseason basketball game and, in the process, the WNIT championship. They didn’t exactly stop the presses at the New York Times, but it was big news around here and inarguably the greatest moment in the program’s history.

The championship game against Southern Cal drew a record 7,301 fans at Savage Arena, and that affinity for the UT women has carried over to this day.

The Rockets averaged 4,263 fans per home game this season, and only one of the MAC’s 24 basketball programs — the Ohio men — averaged more.

Now, granted, the WNIT isn’t a true national championship. Teams bid for/buy home games, and few are equipped to do that as well as UT. All six of its games in the 2010-11 WNIT and four more a year ago were played at Savage Arena.

The Rockets will learn Monday evening if they will be included in the NCAA field. If so, they will be assigned a very, very low seed, probably a 14 or 15, will be matched as underdogs against a national power, and comparably few UT fans will be able to watch in person.

And the Rockets will celebrate. I get it.

But for a lot of reasons, the WNIT is not a bad alternative.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.