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Published: Sunday, 11/17/2013

SPORTS COMMENTARY

UT relishes facing top-tier talent at home

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

In her office, Tricia Cullop has a map of the United States showing the locations of universities. There are colorful lines drawn through each school that refused to schedule games against her University of Toledo women’s basketball team.

“It looks like the country, especially the Midwest, has been paint bombed,” she said.

When Cullop first arrived at UT it wasn’t all that hard to get games. The Rockets were coming off five straight losing seasons. Non-conference opponents like Missouri, Temple, Cincinnati, Indiana, Northwestern, and Purdue were more than happy to dot the Toledo schedule.

Until, that is, the Rockets started beating a few of them. As UT proceeded to win 107 games over the past four seasons Cullop’s phone pretty much stopped ringing.

“Now that we graduated the winningest class in school history we’re getting some calls returned,” she said, chuckling.

That’s why WNIT champion Drexel and Villanova, an NCAA tournament team a year ago, both traveled here from Philadelphia for the season-opening Glass City Tournament and it may explain why No. 18-ranked Purdue will visit Savage Arena today at 2 p.m.

On a related note, UT’s homecourt will be an NCAA women’s tournament site during the first and second rounds this season.

It may be coming a year late for the Rockets and I asked Cullop if she thought her 27-win team during the 2012-13 regular season might have received an at-large bid had UT been a host school. Toledo instead played as a top seed in the WNIT, indicating it was among the last schools to be eliminated from NCAA tournament consideration.

“I would like to think it might have played into it, but I don’t know what goes on behind closed doors,” she said. “I know it’s important to the committee to put people in the seats and we’ve led the state in attendance the last two years. But I can’t answer your question.

“The frustrating thing is that the NCAA makes it clear that one of the criteria is your record against the rest of the field. Well, what happens if you don’t have a chance to play the field? We’re a mid-major that’s in the top 25 nationally in attendance, we’ve won a lot, we had a lot of players coming back, and nobody wanted to play us, home or away. What do you do? I wish the NCAA would look harder at that issue.

“It’s why I’m thrilled that a team like Purdue agreed to come to our arena,” albeit against a UT team that is not as highly regarded — at least yet — as the Toledo squads of the past several years.

Given the chance, Cullop won’t duck tough competition. A good example is the recent Glass City Tournament that brought in Drexel, Villanova, and Mississippi Valley State.

The latter program is the least successful among those and, normally, it would have been matched against the host school in the first round. But Cullop wanted a shot at both Drexel and Villanova — you can’t beat them if you don’t play them — so UT faced Drexel first. It didn’t work out with the Rockets losing the opener, but the intent was there.

UT now hosts two in-season tournaments, Cullop’s theory being that better teams will agree to come to Toledo knowing they will get at least one neutral-site game out of the trip.

Iit is a postseason tournament on March 22-24 that Toledo fans are already eyeing. Athletic director Mike O’Brien said UT’s “perseverance paid off” after three previous bids to be an NCAA host, “and I know our fans are excited about it and will support it.”

Cullop said she has made little fanfare of it with her team.

“They know,” she said, “but I’m not making it a big deal. It’s a huge compliment to our program, but we have so much to do and, hopefully, accomplish as a team before we even think about that. The only pressure we need at this point is to practice well, play hard, and get better.”

Having a shot at a nationally-ranked team like Purdue is the kind of pressure the Rockets must embrace to make a name for themselves. It is, after all, a rare opportunity.

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



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