Clutched in Tricia Cullop’s grip were sheets of notebook paper containing data the women’s basketball coach had culled to help navigate a white-knuckle evening at the office.
Most numbers showed the University of Toledo would be a long shot to make the NCAA tournament, which perhaps explained the coach’s relaxed mood Monday after her suspicions became reality.
Cullop, who watched the selection show on TV with her team, later smiled and engaged in playful chatter with assembled media at Savage Arena. She expressed her approval that a few teams she felt were undeserving of an invitation also were left out of the 64-team field.
The Rockets, winners of the Mid-American Confernce’s regular-season title, will try to wade through the second-tier Women’s National Invitation Tournament, beginning Thursday with a home game against Butler.
Bowling Green will host Southern Methodist on the same day.
Cullop bemoaned the daunting task of finding opponents willing to schedule her team, a major impediment to Toledo’s hope to become the first Mid-American Conference members in 17 years to land an at-large bid.
“I wish I could invite committee members to get on the phone with me when we do scheduling,” Cullop said. “That might be fun.”
Toledo’s 27-3 record, two double-digit win streaks, and an appearance in the Top 25 was not enough to mask a weak schedule strength — No. 163 in out-of-conference games. A RPI rating of 46 was decent but not a must-have for the NCAA, which has not chosen a second MAC team for its tournament since 1996.
The argument against Toledo was clear. Only three of its wins came against a top-100 opponent, with MAC tournament champion Central Michigan registering as the highest at 50. CMU, which beat Toledo twice, including Friday in the semifinals, is seeded No. 11 in the Oklahoma City regional and will face No. 6 Oklahoma on Saturday in Columbus.
Five teams that earned at-large bids boast a RPI worse than UT’s 46 — Texas Tech (48), Miami, Fla. (51), West Virginia (55), South Florida (56), and Kansas (58).
“We prepared our team this morning,” Cullop said. “We gave them a list of six to eight schools that we were competing with to get in. When they saw certain names come up, they knew.”
Toledo, with five seniors and a fan base that ranks No. 20 in home attendance, is in position to make a run in the WNIT similar to 2011 when the Rockets galvanized the community in their six-game march to the title.
It is due in part to that success Toledo’s schedule this season lacked many name brand opponents, ones that could have bolstered the Rockets’ case to make the NCAA tournament. Most teams within a six-hour drive of Toledo refused to schedule the Rockets, the ultimate sign of respect to a program that in five years under Cullop has accomplished virtually everything short of receiving an invitation to the premier postseason tournament.
“People don’t realize when you are a successful mid-major just how difficult it is to schedule,” Cullop said.
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