Auburn’s season “back on top” is over, and Monday night the Tigers found out where 30 victories and and an SEC regular-season championship will get you: an elimination game on the home court of a team that lost nine more games than you did (coming into the NCAA tournament) and was seeded five spots lower that you.
Such is the nature of the women’s tournament that we still have to live with. The bracket is compromised from the start because of pre-determined sites. Schools do not earn home-court advantage because of their results in a year. They don’t “earn” home-court advantage at all. They buy it.
If their administration makes a successful bid, they have that advantage.
People used to bash the old system of having the top-16 seeds host because they said the early rounds were too predictable then. It was too hard for teams to win on others’ home courts. But a defense of that system is to look at a sport like the NFL, where you earn home-field advantage for the playoffs. Earn.
Earn, earn, earn, earn, earn, earn, earn.
That’s the key word here, in case you’re wondering: earn. Since the women’s tournament is not at a juncture yet where its early rounds can be neutral due to attendance issues, those first two rounds are going to be on teams’ home courts. At least under the old system, that meant what you did all season really mattered for more than just your seed. You were playing to earn the right to stay home.
It was something of great value that you had to EARN.
The old system won’t work because television needs these 16 sites picked in advance in order to get crews assigned, trucks in place and take care of all the many, many details (and financial obligations) that go with televising all 64 games.
Eight sites were tried – which meant more neutral games, but still not all – and the attendance dropped in those years, 2005-2008. So we went back to 16 predetermined sites, which was also the system used in 2003-2004. Before that, top four seeds hosted.
So … there’s a trade-off. The sport gets all the games on television, but it lives with situations like Monday’s.
This particular situation doesn’t have anything to do with if Rutgers got the right seed (7) or not … it did, based on the way the Scarlet Knights played this season.
The seed was not the problem. The issue was that because of predetermination, before even one game was played this season, Rutgers already had an advantage that previously had to be earned. All Rutgers had to do was get in the tournament to have that advantage.
Of course, that was enough of an adventure in and of itself for the Scarlet Knight this season. They had four players who’d been on the team in its 2007 Final Four season, three of them as starters. Yet, Rutgers seemed dominated by the issues it had with its incoming freshmen and their inexperience.
There’s really no logical reason there wasn’t a smoother transition period led by the veterans who had a ton of experience. But sometimes what seems logical doesn’t matter when the actuality of team/coach dynamics plays out in real time. For whatever reasons, the Scarlet Knights were a talented mess much of the season, and now they’ve cleaned up their act. Rutgers was finally starting to get it together this month, but that was too late to really bump up their seed.
Meanwhile, Auburn once was one of the best programs in women’s hoops, going to three consecutive Final Fours in 1988-90. But the program began to drift into the middle of the pack, and certainly in the last several years was more or less an afterthought. Not a terrible team, just not a real contender. When you thought of Auburn, it was more, “Remember when?”
Nell Fortner – who had bounced all over the place between the college game, the pro game, the Olympics, broadcasting – finally settled down at Auburn when Joe Ciampi retired. She took over in the 2004-2005 season and was able to bring in most of the best players in the state of Alabama, led by DeWanna Bonner and Whitney Boddie.
There are always twists and turns that any coach/program/fans will look back on and wonder, “What if?” Boddie, unfortunately, was academically ineligible for the second semester last season. With her, the Tigers might have gotten a better seed and stayed longer in the NCAA tournament.
As it was, the Tigers were a No. 11 and fell in the first round to No. 6 George Washington. So despite their 30 wins coming into this year’s NCAA tournament, this was not a postseason-tested group by any stretch. Nobody on the roster had played more than one NCAA tournament game.
Auburn had lost in the SEC tournament final to Vanderbilt, which came after the emotional high of beating Tennessee for a second time. So the Tigers certainly had shown some vulnerability coming into the NCAA tournament in Piscataway, N.J.
Then, in the second round, they hit Rutgers. Epiphanny Prince, Heather Zurich and Kia Vaughn took over. On this night, Rutgers was undoubtedly the better team and won 80-52.
You might look at the score and surmise that it shows that it made no difference where the game was played. And I would disagree. Rutgers might very well have won on a neutral court. The Scarlet Knights might even have won at Auburn. But in neither case do I think they would have blown the doors off the Tigers in the first 10 minutes of the game, essentially putting an end to things before they even started.
That’s where home-court advantage really makes a difference. People can say it shouldn’t, and that Auburn as a No. 2 should be able to win anywhere against any No. 7 seed. But this wasn’t just playing any road game. This was a group of seniors playing what they knew could be the last game of their careers – what, in fact, WAS the last game – on the home court of another team and that team’s loud and supportive fans.
To suggest that advantage for Rutgers was not a significant and game-changing part of this result is ignoring the obvious.
Auburn loses its senior core, and now the challenge for Fortner is to keep building on the energy and enthusiasm that this team generated.
It is the tough breaks of the game, though, that this season had to end in a perfect storm.
That is, perfectly awful for Auburn.