WNIT Dreaming: Pre-Season. Post-Season. Future? – January 2006

Two small news events of note this past summer. Easy to miss if you were enjoying a well-deserved vacation or making preparations for the upcoming season. In July:

Antitrust case puts NCAA on defense: NIT suit over tournament will go to court Monday

Then later in August:

Ending Court Fight, NCAA Buys NIT: NIT will now be run by the NCAA

What, you might ask, does the men’s NIT have to do with you, your recruits, your season ticket holders and whoever is going to fill that still empty date in your schedule next?

Nothing much, really. Except, of course, for the fact that there is a Women’s NIT. And history shows that what happens on the men’s side might eventually happen on the women’s side. The question is, what do women’s basketball coaches want for the future of the WNIT and what should they do to make that vision happen?

Starting at the beginning might help give a sense of what we have right now.

Brent Amick of Triple Crown Sports, the company that organizes the WNIT, recalls his involvement with the WNIT began sometime in 1993. At that time, the men had a pre-season NIT but there was no equivalent event on the women’s side. Amick remembers Margie McDonald, then Associate Deputy Commissioner for the Western Athletic Conference, coming up to him and saying, “You know, no one is doing this. We need someone to step up.”

Why Triple Crown? Well, they had a history of being supportive of women’s sports in other areas and, perhaps fortuitously, owner Dave King’s wife had played college ball. “It was a risky endeavor,” Amick admits, “because at that time, how do you make something like that work?”

Nevertheless, Amick and McDonald began working on NCAA legislation and developing member institutions support. “I came out to one of the WBCA meetings and met with Betty Jaynes,” says Amick. “I got to hook up with some of the conferences and other administrators who wanted to back it.” The legislation was passed in early 1994 and the first pre-season WNIT took place later that year (the post-season WNIT began in 1998). “It was amazing. Within two or three months we had a field of 16 teams,” laughs Amick. “It was like, how did I pull that off?”

It helped that Texas coach Jody Conradt and University of North Carolina’s coach Sylvia Hatchell offered, and continue to offer, their support, serving as unpaid board members of the non-profit organization that is the WNIT. “We use them a lot in an advisory capacity,” says Amick. “Initially they worked with us on setting up guidelines and formatting structures. Originally we thought they could help us with the selection process, but then you come down to the end of the season, you cant even get a hold of them,” Amick laughs. “And they don’t want to be on the selection committee because they’re dealing with peers and that’s not a comfortable position. What is helpful is their recommendations and who they’ve seen.” Hatchell’s involvement is a logical extension of her personal goals and love of the game. “To me, the most important thing is winning games for the University of North Carolina,” she explains. “The second thing is promoting the game. I feel like the WNIT has been there a lot of times when there’s been nothing else, or the opportunities have been limited as far as the NCAA. It’s been an opportunity for teams that deserve to play more, deserve for their season not to be over so early.”

Women’s basketball history is littered with pre-NCAA National Tournaments. The current WNIT paralleled, and then absorbed, the National Women’s Invitational Tournament held in Amarillo, Texas from 1969-97. The two tournaments are neatly linked by the presence of Margie McDonald. She played for the legendary Harley Redin, whose Wayland Baptist teams dominated the NWIT during its first years of existence.

“We’ve played in [preseason] a few times,” continues Hatchell. “You get a few extra games. You also get to start playing earlier. It’s tournament format at the beginning of the season, and you get better and better teams playing each other. That gets people’s interest and has them looking at the upcoming season.”

The post-season WNIT allows teams and players to show their ever-expanding skills and abilities. “Until probably the last six or seven years you had just a few – a very few – great teams,” says Hatchell. “But now, you’ve got so many great teams that could be in the Elite 8 or Sweet 16. In our conference, a couple of years ago we were lucky to get four or five teams in the NCAA. Now our 6th or 7th placed teams are really, really good. If they’d been in another conference, they’d have been in the NCAA.” Similar opportunities are extended to the middle level conferences, where only the champion gets to go to the NCAA. “Sometimes their 2nd, 3rd place teams are very good. It gives them an opportunity for post-season play.”

“It got started simply because the women’s basketball coaches wanted to have an early tournament,” recalled McDonald. “It has evolved, over the last four years, as an important event for women’s basketball. The key to the success is selecting the right teams. If we don’t, get the right teams, good match-ups and people to buy tickets then we can’t pay for the teams travel and expenses. A few years down the road we’re out of business.” That means finding schools willing, and able to host and put up a revenue guarantee.

“It’s a fine thing: we’re trying to select quality teams for a quality event, as well as teams that can draw, says Amick. “When it comes to selecting the teams,” he adds “the parity of the game, gives us a greater number of teams to include in the event and rotate them through. To make the thing work any particular year, we need somebody that can draw and generate some revenue. Some years that might just be one school. There have been years it’s lost money – 80 grand. But over the years, when we have had some profits, we’ve worked to put those away so in the down years, we’d survive.” Interestingly enough, the events do include revenue sharing amongst the teams.

The post-season is made up of teams that don’t make the NCAA tourney. “We’ve tried to select the top remaining 32 teams,” he explains, but “in reality, the NCAA does not pick the top 64 in the NCAA because every conference has an at large bid. There are people that, if you looked at the RPIs, could be #40, but based on the format of the NCAA, those teams are left out.”

If a program is interested in participating in the WNIT, it helps to have a proactive Athletic Director, explains Drexel coach Denise Dillon. “He was very aggressive in trying to get us a post season WNIT invite [last season]. The conference we’re in (Colonial Athletic Association), they only take one team for the NCAA. The year Delaware had last year – 25 wins – would usually be rewarded with an NCAA bid. But they lost in the championship game to Old Dominion, so ODU went the NCAA and Delaware to the post season WNIT.” Drexel was not invited to the post-season tournament, but was offered a place in the 2005 pre-season tourney. “The AD was on it day after day, so I think our name was in their ear,” says Dillon. “I jumped on the opportunity.”

Of course, once you get in, there is the matter of playing the actual game. “The challenge is you’re going to play a quality team,” says Harry Paretta, coach of Villanova. “Sometimes you’re going to play on the road. It’s just a good experience for kids, especially if you have a younger team. That’s what the whole idea of competition is supposed to be: to play and learn.”

“The only problem,” Paretta continues, “is sometimes in women’s basketball you have a discrepancy in the talent level. You could be overwhelmed or overmatched.” His team, for instance, lost in the first round of 16 in the ’98 post-season WNIT to eventual champion Penn State (the field expanded to 32 the next year.) “But,” he points out, “that’s also part of teaching kids about life, too. You’re going to be in situation where you’re overmatched. You do your best and move on.”

In Drexel’s case, Dillon had to prepare her team to face Boston College.

“We tried to get them to realize now we are a program that’s changing, moving in the right direction. We started with saying, ‘Hey, you got the invite, that’s the first step. The next thing is now you’re playing a top team in the country.’ We’re telling them, ‘This is going to prepare you for the conference. It gives you a taste of what the NCAA is like, what the post-season WNIT is like. It’s a one and done deal. You win and you get rewarded.'”

“We came in with that attitude and I think we surprised ourselves a little bit, they way we played. We came up a little short, but we hope to carry that in to every game. A little bit of disappointment from last year – losing in the semi-finals by one – and now a little disappointment in the WNIT. Instead of ‘coulda, shoulda, didn’t,’ it’s now proving that we’re going to be consistent and win some games. It was definitely great for our players.”

Similar sentiments are echoed by Jim Wiede of the Missouri Valley Conference’s Indiana State, a veteran of the WNIT. “We don’t have a long standing tradition of success here,” said the coach. “The last three years we have enjoyed success in and outside of the Valley. So, to have an opportunity to play in the WNIT two out of the last three years, to host first and second rounds two out of the last three years, and to be able to reward our fans for their support throughout the entire year was pretty special.”

“We haven’t been to the NCAA,” he added, “so it’s a big deal to have a chance to play some quality teams that maybe we don’t get a chance to play during the year. We probably wouldn’t have a great shot at hosting an Illinois (who they defeated in last season’s post-season WNIT). It’s a reward to your kids for the hard work and commitment they’ve made to your program. I can’t say enough about the way it’s run, the job our administration did and the way our community embraced the whole experience.”

“It’s been great exposure for us here,” concurs Gale Barksdale, Indiana State’s Senior Women’s Administrator. “We showed we are as good as we talk. We can play with the bigger ‘more prestigious’ schools and be competitive. It’s helped a lot with recruiting. You get kids that weren’t good enough to be recruited by these (big) schools, but we ultimately get to play them and, in some cases, we get to beat them. That helps being able to get some of those stronger, quality players that you wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise if you season ended with your last game.”

For Indiana State, winning the first two rounds of this year’s preseason meant facing the University of Connecticut in Connecticut and enduring a 40-point loss. “Unfortunately we didn’t play particularly well up there – and they had a lot to do with that,” reflected Wiede. “But just to go against such a storied program. To go to the arena on campus and see the banners and all the history, knowing where that program was, where it is now and what it takes to get to that level and stay at that level. Especially for my seniors, it was a really special experience. After their careers are over, they can say, ‘Hey, I had a chance to play at Gampel Pavilion against UConn.'”

On a more practical note, Wiede expects season-long benefits from the loss. He was surprised at the way his team played UConn. “I thought with a veteran team we would go up there and not be intimidated. I thought my young ones would be nervous. But it was three of my seniors that were really scared, and they basically admitted it after the game. A week or so later, when we played Kentucky, they weren’t intimidated. Now Kentucky is not on the same level quite yet as UConn, but you’re playing against 6’3, 6’6” and a deeper team than we are. Our kids actually believed they could win the game. We played well and had a shot to beat them. That whole experience is going to help us when we get to Missouri Valley play.”

Wiede understands the various factors that can contribute to deserving teams being locked out of the NCAA and the subsequent disappointment that can follow. But, “for those coaches who don’t have a shot at that, playing in the WNIT is pretty special,” he explains. “Here’s a chance to go up against top caliber teams. If [the NCAA] are the top 64 – theoretically – and you’re taking the next 32, and there’s 327 Division I teams – you’re still in a pretty elite group. This year, with the preseason,” he continues, “you’ve hand picked 16 teams and only eight host. That’s a pretty special honor.

“All of us that have had a chance to participate in the WNIT – pre or post – look at it as a special opportunity and something that has benefited our program tremendously. You have a chance to be in a final four or win a national championship. Anytime you are able to get to the final four of anything, or you’re able to win a national championship regardless of what level, that’s pretty impressive. The odds of winning a National Championship at Indiana State are pretty remote. But we can win an NIT Championship.”

It may sound counterintuitive, but the WNIT wants successful post-season teams to leave and not come back. “It’s our feeling – and mine specifically – it’s good for teams that come to the post-season WNIT to have success, to build their program and move on. It means we’ve helped the program in a way they wouldn’t if the tourney weren’t around. Now (other) teams will see, ‘Hey we need to be in that because that helped so and so.'”

“Three years ago [Baylor] made it to the championship of the post season WNIT,” he points out. “All their kids were freshmen and sophomores. The same group that won [the 2005 NCAA Championship]. Penn State had a good run in the WNIT and a couple of years later they were in the Final Four. Michigan State had some good runs to the semi-finals. I told their coaches and their administrators, ‘You know what? This is probably the last time you guys will be in this tournament because with your young team, and the direction you’re going in, you’ll be in the NCAA tournament from now on.’ Sure enough, that’s the way it held, too.”

Not surprisingly, if Drexel team doesn’t make the NCAA this season, coach Dillon would be more than happy for a chance at the post-season. “You don’t want to look at it like this is a disappointment, because you didn’t make the NCAA tournament,” explains Dillon. “Actually this is a great thing. It’s a chance for you to regain confidence going in to the next season. You want a chance to end on a high note. For us, even if we got blown out, the place we are, what we’re trying to do, it’s definitely a giant step.”

As for those little summer news items?

“We’re watching closely,” says Amick. “We’re still understanding what the NCAA is going to do with the men’s NIT and how that will impact us. What we’ve got to watch is what are their plans after five years (when the ESPN and Madison Square Garden contracts end).

When asked if she’d rather the WNIT stay independent or become part of the NCAA, Barksdale is of two minds. “The hardest thing (about hosting) it the financial obligation,” she says. Indiana, being a basketball state with lots of interstate rivalries, the risk was less. “We played Illinois and had close to 6000 people come to watch us play. If I can get 6000 people in my building, it’s worth it.” But, she wonders if some teams avoid participating or hosting because of money they have to put upfront.

“The NCAA would have a ton more money to work with, and it would put you in a position to at least break even.” Then again, Barksdale continues, “when working with the NCAA, they foot the bill but they also tell you how to run it as well. The WNIT lets us run it the way we already run our games.”

Barksdale’s experience with the NCAA is “you end up doing things for the ‘betterment of all,’ which really means big schools. So many decisions that are made are in the ‘best interest of all institutions.’ But we all know that it’s big schools and that’s really it. I would be afraid that that piece [of the WNIT which supports mid-majors] would get lost if it went to the NCAA.”

McDonald believe coaches are in the driver seat. “If the pre and post-season events are to continue, it will have to have the support of the women’s basketball coaches. Either it’s the status quo: we keep it and they help us build it. Or, they voice their concerns to the NCAA and get the NCAA to take it over. Maybe the more cautious thing,” she adds, “is to see how the men’s thing pans out before the coaches decide to make waves with the WNIT.

“I think what we do at the women’s NIT is good for women’s basketball at this point,” concludes McDonald. “It has served a very important purpose in the growth of the women’s basketball across the country. I love it. I think it’s great. But I wouldn’t even think about not promoting women’s basketball to the max. And if that means something other than the Women’s NIT, then I’m all for it.”

So, four years from now, let’s talk.

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