BY TYLER BRADFIELD | Ball State Sports Link
The scene resembled pure joy.
On one national television screen, Coach Felisha Legette-Jack and her No. 11 seed Buffalo Bulls celebrated an 86-65 onslaught of No. 3 seed Florida State in the NCAA Tournament second round. The win put a Mid-American Conference team into the Sweet 16 for the first time since Curt Miller’s 2007 Bowling Green Falcons.
Tears and smiles, the only response amongst a huddle of embraced teammates – some with their jersey now un-tucked. Coaches, managers and other staff members all joined in the triumphant celebration on the pale hardwood of the Tucker Center in Tallahassee, Florida. For many in the Buffalo huddle, this prized destination required a massive leap of faith.
Buffalo’s senior point guard, Stephanie Reid, who was one of five starters to score in double figures against FSU, finished the night with 18 points. She stood with Jack on her left and freshman Autumn Jones on her right. Just four years ago, the now second-team all-conference player was concluding her high school career.
A two-year captain at The Peninsula School, Reid came all the way from Melbourne, Australia, to play American college basketball for Jack at Buffalo. American Airlines can transport Reid from Buffalo to Melbourne in 25 hours via Philadelphia and Los Angeles for roughly $2,000.
Just feet away from Reid in the huddle happily bounced Katherine and Liisa Ups. Twins from Wollongong, Australia – a gorgeous seaside city south of Sydney known for its surf beaches.
These aspiring doctors, now seniors and over 10,000 miles from home, instilled a similar trust in a coach. The same coach who just two years prior to their commitment had failed.
On June 14, 2012, Jack was named the 12th head coach in Buffalo women’s basketball history. The hiring came three months after Indiana Athletic Director, Fred Glass, fired Jack after a 6-24 season in Bloomington.
“I am so grateful to be with these young ladies who teach me every day that I have to bring something different because they’re such ferocious learners and they want it so desperately,” said a reminiscing Jack in the postgame press conference on Monday night. “They took a broken coach and they took her to the Sweet 16.”
From a once underachieving fire to now an overachieving Sweet 16 coach, Jack’s tears were full of emotion.
As the initial excitement settled, moments later, Jack stood in the front of a seated Bulls locker room. Her hair now Gatorade soaked to her scalp. Through the loud speaker of Jack’s cell phone was the voice Sue Guevara, head coach at Central Michigan University.
“Hey, we in the Sweet 16 baby,” Jack said to Guevara.
Guevara was calling from St. John Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
As Jack and her Bulls handled Florida State, Guevara and her Central Michigan Chippewas simultaneously dominated Ohio State to reach the Sweet 16 as well.
— UB Women's Hoops (@UBwomenshoops) March 20, 2018
Two teams from the Mid-American Conference in the Sweet 16, both No. 11 seeds.
Guevara, the former Big Ten Coach of the Year at the University of Michigan, has a similar story to Jack. Guevara led the Wolverines to consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances in 2000 and 2001. The following two seasons though, Michigan combined for a 9-23 conference record.
With the program trending downward, Guevara resigned March 25, 2003. From 2004 through 2007 Guevara coached on staff at Auburn as an assistant out of the spotlight, until she was hired by Central Michigan in April 2007.
Guevara’s roster this season features five starters all from the Mitten State, many of which went under recruited and over looked by surrounding Big Ten schools.
Those players include conference player of the year, Tinara Moore, and fellow first teamer Presley Hudson.
But it wasn’t as if Jack or Guevara were walking into great scenarios either. As badly as Jack and Guevara had failed in their former Big Ten positions, both Buffalo and Central Michigan needed them.
Prior to Jack’s arrival in Buffalo, the Bulls suffered through a 9-22 year. At Central Michigan, the Chippewas experimented with three different head coaches from 1993-2007. During that 14-year span, the program saw just one winning season.
Once Jack and Guevara both landed in the MAC — five years between their hires — they still endured a few speed bumps.
It took struggling through a 12-20 season in Jack’s first year and Guevara a 7-22 year. But since those initial hurdles, Buffalo and Central Michigan have consistently finished in the top half of the league the last six years.
In 2013, Central Michigan led by Crystal Bradford, a future first round WNBA selection, reached the NCAA Tournament by winning the MAC Title. It ended a 29-year drought for the Chippewas. Three years later, Jack’s 2016 Buffalo team made a surprise run through the MAC Tournament as the No. 8 seed to win the school’s first conference crown.
Buffalo defeated Central Michigan in overtime of the championship game that year as Reid, a sophomore at the time, hit a game-winning runner in the lane. Buffalo’s first MAC Championship as she jumped into teammate Cassie Oursler’s arms.
As the top two teams in the conference this year, Buffalo and Central Michigan both finished the regular season 25-4.
A rematch from the 2016 title game in Cleveland featured a thrilling 96-91 Central Michigan win.
With the win Central Michigan received the automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. Buffalo was forced to sweat until the selection show to receive its at-large entrance.
Now, after wins over LSU and Ohio State for Central Michigan; and South Florida and Florida State for Buffalo, the once broken Guevara and Jack are dancing into the Sweet 16.
These two 11-seeds from the MAC, have turned into “Cinderella stories” in a women’s tournament constantly under criticism for dominating performances from top-level programs.
So as the Bulls prepare for South Carolina and the Chippewas for Oregon Saturday, how should the nation receive these teams?
First and foremost, it seems rather difficult to refer to these games as “upsets” based on the outcomes. Buffalo and Central Michigan have handled their higher seeded opponents. Check the scores.
102-79 Win over South Florida (23 points)
86-65 Win over Florida State (21 points)
78-69 Win over LSU (9 points)
95-78 Win over Ohio State (17 points)
The two have combined to lead for 113 minutes compared to their opponent’s 37 minutes in their four tournament games.
Are these really “Cinderella stories?” What even classifies as a “Cinderella?”
This slipper comes in two styles:
— NCAA Women’s Basketball (@ncaawbb) March 20, 2018
Derived from the popular folk tale, Cinderella is a term used to describe a sports team who achieves unexpected postseason success. It was first used in 1950 in reference to City College of New York, the unexpected winners of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. That same year the popular Disney Cinderella movie was released.
But are Buffalo and Central Michigan actually deserving of the glass slippers? Perhaps these two teams were just improperly seeded by a selection committee?
“Feel bad for LSU and USF,” shared Brady Sallee, Ball State head coach, via Twitter after first round games. “They were the victims of both MAC teams being poorly seeded. Anybody that calls these wins upsets either doesn’t know or doesn’t care.”
As champions of the MAC, Central Michigan received an automatic-bid into the tournament as an No. 11 seed in the Spokane regional.
Buffalo’s resume was sufficient to be included via an at-large invite, a first for the league since 1996. The Bulls, considered one of the last four teams to make the tournament field, tagged a No. 11 seed as well in the Albany regional.
The seeding seemed a bit low for two teams ranked 15th (Central Michigan) and 22nd (Buffalo) in RPI on selection Monday.
RPI (rating percentage index) is a computer-based rating system factoring in various metrics. The rankings are supposedly used by the selection committee to help determine the tournament field. It is not the only deciding factor, and in fact, many analysts will argue RPI is meaningless based on past committee’s decisions.
But, it is rating system based solely off mathematical formulas and not subjective opinions of coaches and media members.
Again, Central Michigan finished the year ranked 15th and Buffalo 22nd.
Nineteen teams received higher seeds even though they had lower RPI rankings than the two MAC schools.
4-Seed: Georgia (26th)
5-Seed: Missouri (24th)
6-Seed: LSU (29th)
7-Seeds: California (43rd), Green Bay (23rd), Michigan (39th), and Arizona State (56th)
8-Seeds: Miami (53rd), South Dakota State (28th), Marquette (25th), and Syracuse (38th)
9-Seeds: Quinnipiac (37th), Villanova (30th), Dayton (36th), and Oklahoma State (59th)
10-Seeds: Minnesota (41st), N. Colorado (32nd), Nebraska (60th), and Virginia (33rd)
Most of those teams are members of Power 5 conferences (ACC, SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12). So many would reason and argue they play a tougher schedule than teams in the MAC.
However, the MAC finished as the country’s 7th-toughest conference – higher than the American Athletic (UConn’s conference), Atlantic 10, Conference-USA and several others.
If teams from higher-rated conferences were removed from the above list, there are still five teams from LOWER conferences with LOWER RPI rankings who still received HIGHER seeds. Those teams include Green Bay, South Dakota State, Quinnipiac, Dayton and Northern Colorado.
Obviously other metrics are taken into consideration for bids such as strength of schedule, Top 25 wins, quadrant one and two records, and the team’s performance over the last 10 games.
But, in a hypothetical scenario where RPI rankings equated the tournament seeds, Central Michigan would have received a No. 4 seed and Buffalo a No. 6 seed.
It is quite puzzling how a team ranked 15th in RPI, winners of the nation’s 7th best conference, who were 9-1 in their last 10 games and faced the 53rd toughest schedule received an 11-seed. What does the MAC need to do to earn respect?
Not to mention, Central Michigan has the No. 7 offense in the nation, a field goal and three-point percentage as a team both in the top 15 nationally.
Buffalo boasted non-conference wins over Nebraska, Clemson and St. John’s.
Perhaps, as Sallee suggested, these teams were simply seeded incorrectly.
If you’re still married to numbers, is it really an “upset” when a team 15th in RPI beats a team ranked 29th?
No. So, why the shock when Central Michigan beat LSU?
Are you stunned to your core when No. 22 beats No. 14?
No, clearly these are two equally matched teams. So why react like pint-sized David just shackled powerhouse Goliath when Buffalo knocked off South Florida?
Strip away the seeds, conferences and team names. The better teams showed up and dominated. They are only upsets if you buy into the “mid major” tagline and believe an opinion of someone who likely didn’t thoroughly watch the conference, but still sat on a committee to decide seeds.
Seeds in the NCAA Tournament are not outputs of a mathematical formula. Sure, metrics are used by committee members, but ultimately it is an opinion of a committee reviewing statistical extractions.
As some suggest, the RPI rankings don’t heavily effect the selection committee’s decision, but maybe Buffalo and Central Michigan proved there’s some validity to the RPI?
Perhaps Central Michigan and Buffalo should have been four and six-seeds? Are you ringing the upset alert when a 4-seed and a 5-seed reach the Sweet 16? That would be foolish. But, they proved they are Sweet 16 good.
Clearly it goes without saying, the selection committee overlooked the MAC and carelessly seeded two Sweet 16 teams as 11s.
“Central Michigan had some tougher games in conference play,” wrote Don Chiodo, broadcaster at Central Michigan, on social media after the win over LSU. “Chippewas led for 36 of 40 minutes and dominated the glass. No. 11 CMU was improperly seeded and No. 6 LSU ended up paying the price.”
Men’s college basketball analyst, Jay Bilas, always stresses the importance of the committee’s job in seeding as opposed to including or excluding teams in the field. It is more important the committee seeds the field correctly as opposed to spending their time worrying about the last four in and out.
During the women’s selection show, Rhonda Bennett, committee chair and senior associate athletics director at the University of Nevada, commented on national television the committee spent seven hours alone finalizing the final four teams to be included and the first four to be excluded. Buffalo was in that final four.
Seven hours worrying about a team who would reach the Sweet 16.
So as Central Michigan and Buffalo prepare for Sweet 16 match-ups against Oregon and South Carolina, how should the nation receive these teams?
They both have a great story. Stories fostered in second chances, leaps of faith and cultures embodying sisterhood and winning. These stories serve as the reason the nation will be behind them this weekend.
Not to mention they have the number 11 attached to their name while Oregon and South Carolina have the number 2. Everyone roots for the underdog.
But, are they really “Cinderella’s?” Or are they teams who were poorly seeded by a selection committee infatuated with big schools?
Regardless, it took a pair of nationally televised games for Central Michigan and Buffalo in order for people across the country to notice what the MAC has known all year long.