Last offseason Tricia Cullop drew circles on a United States map around homes of notable women’s basketball programs refusing to schedule the University of Toledo.
“It looked like a bomb dropped on the Midwest,” the fifth-year Rockets coach quipped.
Cullop made the comment in December, before anyone began to seriously consider the implications a soft schedule could have on Toledo’s prospects for an NCAA tournament berth. Now the Rockets, who put together a historic regular season featuring two double-digit win streaks and a Top 25 cameo, hope that breezy path will not puncture their case to be the first Mid-American Conference team in 17 seasons to earn an at-large bid to the year-end dance.
Toledo’s lowly schedule strength, 244th of 345 Division I teams, will be the proverbial elephant this weekend at Quicken Loans Arena, where the Rockets will try to silence conjecture by picking up two wins and securing the MAC’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The top-seeded Rockets (27-2) will square off against Central Michigan, which dealt Toledo its only league loss, in a semifinal at noon today.
“We’re not trying to go into the tournament hoping the committee is going to be nice to us,” Cullop said. “We’d rather keep things in our own hands. I do hope in the event we have to face that scenario they’ll look at our body of work. Five seniors and four players on the all-conference team. A team capable of doing very well in the NCAA tournament, and one that has proven itself on the road.”
Toledo, the winner of 15 straight, is “maybe the biggest dilemma in this situation,” ESPN.com bracketologist Charlie Creme said.
"The won-loss record is gaudy, and the RPI (42) is decent, but few victories are significant. Charlotte (53), Marquette (66), and Central Michigan (68) are the only teams Toledo defeated with RPIs below 100. All three came on the road or at a neutral setting, but among them, only Charlotte is in line to attain an at-large bid, “and I’m not in love with that,” Creme said.
“If you put a gun to my head, they’d be on the outside looking in,” Creme said of Toledo, which last won the MAC tournament in 2001. “That schedule strength is a tough one to get past.”
A chance to add another signature win eluded the Rockets when Hampton, ranked 90th in RPI, lost in the semifinal at the Toledo Invite. The Rockets then crushed Prairie View A&M — RPI: 224 — in the title game.
“It ends up biting us because we don’t get to play them,” Cullop said.
Another matchup that appeared to be prosperous, against St. Bonaventure, was a laugher. The Bonnies, a Sweet 16 team a year ago, won only 10 games and have an RPI that ranks 216th.
RPI, short for Ratings Percentage Index, is a formula that factors a team’s winning percentage (25 percent), its opponents’ winning percentage (50 percent), and the winning percentage of that team’s opponents’ opponents (25 percent). The MAC ranks 18th among 33 leagues.
Creme said Toledo’s case would be stronger had it beaten Dayton in November. The Rockets squandered a six-point lead on the road with four minutes to go, losing 79-76 to a Flyers team currently ranked No. 18 in the Associated Press poll and boasting a 27-2 mark.
“If they win that game, I think they’re in,” Creme said. “That’s the one win they needed.”
Only two MAC teams, and none since Kent State in 1996, have advanced to the NCAA tournament without winning the MAC tournament.
Creme, who projects the Rockets to be a No. 12 seed in the NCAA tournament provided they win the MAC, said Toledo’s chances for an at-large invite will increase if all goes to form at four other conference tournaments.
Rocket supporters will be pulling for Delaware (Colonial Athletic Association), Green Bay (Horizon League), Creighton Missouri Valley), and Saint Joseph’s (Atlantic 10) to win their leagues. All four are expected to be in the NCAA field one way or another.
“Toledo’s had a great season, and I think they’ve put themselves squarely in the mix to be strongly considered during selection week,” said Bowling Green State University athletic director Greg Christopher, who last year served as chair of the NCAA selection committee. “They’ll need to be watching the board, and hopefully there are no upsets across the country to take slots away.”
Next season, UT will begin a home-and-home series with Purdue, Cullop’s alma mater. The Boilermakers are ranked No. 21. Villanova, which could make the NCAA field, will play in one of two tournaments hosted by Toledo. The Rockets will also compete in a tournament hosted by St. Mary’s, a 20-win team this season.
This year’s slate, though against many weak foes, featured win streaks of 11 and 15 games. Winning this weekend might be the only way to ensuring a NCAA invitation.
“We’ve played with everybody, and the focus we have had has been outstanding,” Cullop said.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.