From the minute the final horn blew in their Pac-12 Tournament loss to Oregon, the Arizona Wildcats were all but assured of a WNIT berth. Still, head coach Adia Barnes held out some hope that they would hear their name earlier in the day when the NCAA Tournament field was announced.
“Despite RPI being a little lower, we’ve peaked late in the season and we’re playing some good basketball,” Barnes said. “I think that we’ve had some key wins against some really good opponents who will do well in the tournament. And we have seven wins in the best conference in the country. If you look at the top 10 teams in the country, we’ve played two or three of them very competitively more than once. So, I think that we can definitely get some wins in the tournament. And I don’t think anyone in the tournament would want to play us.”
You can’t fault the optimism. Still, an RPI of 81 said that optimism probably wouldn’t be enough. When all was said and done, the weak out-of-conference schedule and a few key missed opportunities in Pac-12 play were the difference.
Arizona played the No. 33 schedule in the country according to Hero Sports. But that is almost entirely due to the strength of the conference, which is ranked first, based on the median BennettRank of the teams in the league.
The non-conference schedule was ranked in the high 200s out of 351 Division I teams. That was the worst in the Pac-12 by a wide margin. Of their fellow Pac-12 members, only Utah joined Arizona with a schedule above 200.
The Wildcats made the WNIT as an at-large team. The WNIT awards automatic berths to the top-finishers in each conference who don’t get invited to the NCAA Tournament. If that team declines the invite, the conference loses its automatic bid and the bid goes back into the pool of at-large berths.
Utah was the top finished in the Pac-12 without an NCAA invite, but they informed the WNIT last week that they would not be able to play. Coach Lynne Roberts said that her team’s lack of depth and injuries made it unwise to continue playing.
Fortunately for Arizona, they didn’t need the automatic bid. A star player. A strong finish by a team that could compete with opponents who are going to make noise in the NCAA Tournament. A top conference.
Now, they wait to see who they play and if they get to host. The WNIT is a for-profit tournament that requires schools to bid to host the first few rounds. Barnes said last week that the UA was going to submit a bid.
“It’s a big investment for the university to do it,” she said. “I do know that we are trying to host. I don’t know the exacts (of the bidding process), but I think we have a really good chance if we go to the NIT to host a large chunk of games in the beginning.”
If Arizona advances, fan support will play a big part in whether the team gets to continue hosting the later rounds.
“From my understanding, after that, it goes off attendance and what your revenue is,” Barnes said. “So, I think then, we would really have a push to get everybody out in Tucson to our games, because we want to stay home as long as we could.”