As someone who has watched the NCAA Tournament in Women’s Basketball, I tend to find those who push for equal promotion and advertising attention between it and the men’s game to be somewhat puzzling, since the men’s game is vastly better. In addition to the quality of the game being far superior, there are also far more good male basketball players than women’s ones in any level, and as a result there are far more good men’s college teams than women’s ones, to the point that while in the men’s game one can have massive upsets, the women’s game tends to be a far more chalky affair, with favorites generally being able to advance far into the tournament unless there is a serious injury or some kind of egregious over/under-seeding going on.
It is precisely this which I wish to talk about today because I was puzzled in looking at the seedings just how some of the female teams from the Pac-12 seemed to be drastically overseeded when compared to other teams with similar win-loss records. Let us give some examples. Six teams from the Pac-12 women’s basketball conference were given bids into the NCAA Tournament: Stanford (16-0 in conference and 28-3 overall) got a well-earned #1 spot. After that came 19-10 (11-6) Washington State, 20-11 (11-6) Oregon), 20-7 (10-6) Arizona, 22-8 (9-7) Colorado, and 20-11 (8-7) Utah. The next team, 14-12 (8-8) UCLA, got relegated to the WNIT. One can see from these standings alone that Stanford was head and shoulders above the rest of their conference, going unbeaten, while the rest of the conference beat each other up. Still, five teams got at-large spots, including several of them getting seeds that place them against teams with considerably better records.
Let us consider the example of Oregon, in particular. While most of its losses were indeed in conference to the same upper-middle tier within the conference, four of its losses were out of the conference, and they were to the following teams: South Carolina (itself a #1 seed), University of California-Davis, Kansas State, and the University of South Florida. Only one of these teams was seeded better than Oregon, and two of them (USF and KSU) were seeded as #9 teams, while Cal-Davis was not even a tournament team. The team that they are playing, Davidson, was seeded #12 despite having a better record, having gone nearly unbeaten in their own conference and only losing against Louisville (a #1 seed), Georgia Tech, UCF, Auburn, and Arkansas. Yet despite a better record and a comparable non-conference slate, they are seeded 7 spots below Oregon.
Similarly, Utah lost at home to BYU and on a neutral court to Gonzaga, and yet only one seed below 3-loss BYU and two seeds above six-loss Gonzaga, despite a considerably worse win-loss record than both teams as well as head-to-head losses. One of the aspects of college sports that has been especially troublesome is the way that conference affiliation tends to matter far more than on the court performance. If a conference is considered to be a prestige one, all of its teams benefit, even if the on-court product is not particularly greater if at all to that of other schools when one looks at non-conference records–as we have seen. Even in cases where there is a clear gap of six games between a champion and a group of roughly equal teams below it, those teams may all be considered to be better than teams that beat them in the non-conference just because they hang together.
This is one of the factors that drives conference expansion. The gap between how haves and have-nots are treated in college sports means that there is a great deal of motivation for schools to move up to higher prestige conferences in order to gain a better chance for its teams than would otherwise be the case. What is the point of crushing the Missouri Valley Conference if one has to hope for a marginal at-large build if it loses in one’s conference tournament–not a hard thing to do in Arch Madness–if one can get one of three or more at-large bids in a slightly better conference. What is the point of struggling for one of three bids in a major conference if one can get one of six or more bids in the most prestigious conferences, if they will have them. It is for this reason that teams are willing to jump to better conferences, leaving an even larger gap between prestige conferences and everyone else, even if the results on the field or on the court do not seem to show that these teams are in fact far better than the teams they left behind. All that matters is that they have the prestige to gain the rewards that get better recruits and more money in television contracts. Who cares about the actual game anyway?