COLUMN BY AUSTIN CANNON
The end of the 2015-2016 Drake Women’s Basketball season had a familiar result: a loss to the Northern Iowa Panthers. But this particular defeat to the fellow Missouri Valley Conference team wasn’t in the league tournament. Instead, the two teams met in the second round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament on Saturday, ending the Bulldogs’ season by a score of 64-58.
UNI was unsolvable to the Bulldogs. The Panthers were the only MVC team to beat Drake in both league games this year. Going into the postseason, UNI was the league champion while Drake finished a game behind in second place.
The potential No. 1-vs.-No. 2 matchup in the MVC tournament title game evaporated when Missouri State bounced Drake in their semifinal, 65-61. The Bears would take down UNI in the title game to advance to the NCAA tournament. Having the best record in the MVC without making the Big Dance, UNI automatically qualified for the WNIT. With a 22-9 record, the Bulldogs were able to secure an at-large bid.
There’s nothing wrong with this story so far. Both teams unquestionably deserved seeds in the WNIT. For Drake, it was an OK consolation to not making the NCAA tournament for the ninth straight year.
But then the WNIT selection committee got involved.
Drake’s and UNI’s first-round games were placed right next to each other in the bracket. The Bulldogs would host the Sacred Heart Pioneers. Directly underneath, UNI would visit Nebraska. If Drake and UNI both won, they would face each other in the second round.
I remember looking at the bracket and thinking, “Are you kidding me?” In a field of 64 teams, the committee placed the only MVC teams on an early-round collision course? You’re telling me there’s no other place on the bracket where Drake or UNI could’ve gone?
(A Drake-Nebraska matchup, on the other hand, would’ve been incredibly intriguing. Former Drake head coach Amy Stephens is a Huskers assistant, and Kyndal Clark, the former Drake guard and 2014 MVC player of the year, started 26 games for the Huskers this season as a fifth-year senior before ending her career because of chronic knee pain.)
Sure enough, Drake sent the Pioneers back to Connecticut with a 36-point win and UNI eked out a 64-62 victory over Nebraska.
Round 3 of Drake-UNI was set for Saturday.
This game should’ve never been possible. Sure, teams from the same conference will sometimes play each other in postseason tournaments, but not in the second round.
The matchup hurt the MVC. Instead of potentially seeing two of its teams make a deep run into the tournament, one was guaranteed to go home in the first two rounds.
The Valley didn’t exactly hide its displeasure. Its basketball Twitter account (@ValleyHoops) retweeted Southern Illinois coach Cindy Stein’s comment that translated to: “Congrats to the UNI Panthers for their WNIT win tonight. Too bad they had to beat another MVC team. Poor bracketing.”
I couldn’t agree more. The bracket gave us a matchup we had already seen twice before and ensured that only one Valley team could survive the first weekend.
I understand that the WNIT field had to be determined quickly, especially when the NCAA bracket was set only a few hours before. I understand that there were perhaps cost reasons that placed UNI and Drake next to each other. I understand that the game being in Cedar Falls made it easy for Drake fans to attend.
I get all that. But to put those teams near each other was a diss to the MVC and to the fans and players on both teams who wanted to play someone else.
Personally, I was disappointed. I wanted to see Drake face someone new, but I’m just a grouchy guy at the wise old age of 22.