HARRISONBURG — James Madison women’s basketball coach Kenny Brooks described the reaction from the crowd assembled at the Convocation Center as more than a little surprised Monday when ESPN announced that the Dukes would be opening the NCAA tournament in College Station, Texas.
“I think a lot of people were stunned,” Brooks said of those who gathered to watch the selection show.
Despite much closer host sites — including College Park, Md., Durham, N.C., and Chapel Hill, N.C. — the selection committee is sending the Colonial Athletic Association champion Dukes to Texas A&M, where, as an 11 seed, they’ll play sixth-seeded Gonzaga at 5:30 p.m. Sunday in the Lincoln, Neb., regional. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.
The winner will face No. 3 seed Texas A&M, the 2011 national champion, or No. 14 seed North Dakota.
“If you look at the logic of it, you look at the bottom of half of that region … Oklahoma was a 10 seed and we’re an 11 seed. They send them to Durham and they send us to Texas,” Brooks said.
Any theories on why?
“If you try to figure out what the NCAA’s thinking,” Brooks said, “you’ll go crazy.”
When asked about getting a reasonably favorable pairing with a fellow mid-major, Brooks still hadn’t gotten over being sent 1,200 miles away.
“I’m still trying to get past the fact that we’re going to Texas,” he said. “It would have been great for us to be able to stay close enough where our fans would be able to travel and watch us play. But we’re just happy to be a part of it.”
JMU went 28-5 this season and would have been ranked 34th in this week’s Associated Press poll if it went that low. Gonzaga, ranked 18th, went 29-4 and won the West Coast Conference championship.
ESPN’s women’s bracketologist, Charlie Creme, said in a recent interview that JMU could be as high as a 7 seed and as low as an 11 seed. The CAA was weak this year, and that probably hurt the Dukes’ seeding. The Colonial received only one NCAA bid.
“I think we’re better than an 11 seed,” Brooks said. “I don’t even know why we’re an 11 seed. We’re getting [Top 25] votes. I don’t know what goes into that. You can’t say it’s geographic; they sent us halfway across the country.”
On the bright side, Madison won’t be playing a 1 or 2 seed if it beats Gonzaga, which is making its sixth straight NCAA appearance and has its best seeding ever. If the Dukes were an 8 or 9 seed, they’d play a No. 1 seed in the second round. In women’s basketball, which doesn’t have the parity of the men’s game, that is tantamount to a death sentence. If the Dukes were a 7 or 10 seed, they’d face a 2 seed, which isn’t much better.
Being an 11 facing a fellow mid-major gives JMU a better chance at winning two games and making the Sweet 16.
“I think it’s favorable for that situation,” Brooks, in his 12th year as JMU’s head coach, said. “But you’re still at Texas A&M, and Texas A&M is no slouch. They’re a very good basketball team, but you have the factor of traveling and what not. It’s going to be tough. We have to look at Gonzaga first.”
The Dukes haven’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1991, when they beat Kentucky and Penn State before losing to Clemson in the regional semifinal.
Madison has made three other NCAA appearances under Brooks. In all three trips (2007, 2010 and 2011), the Dukes were one and done, mostly recently losing as a 9 seed to Temple in Norfolk in 2010 and as an 11 seed to Oklahoma in 2011 in Charlottesville.
Gonzaga is led by 5-foot-8 senior guard Haiden Palmer, who is averaging 15.1 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Six-foot-4 junior forward Sunny Greinacher is averaging 11.6 points and 5.4 rebounds, and 6-foot senior guard Lindsay Sherbert is averaging 10.9 points for Gonzaga, which has outscored its opponents, on average, by 19.4 points per game this season.
The Bulldogs, like JMU, have multiple RPI-boosting wins over major-conference programs: Ohio State, Wisconsin and Washington State. They lost to Oklahoma and Stanford and have an RPI of 11, according to the NCAA’s rankings. The Dukes — who have an RPI of 45 — beat Virginia, UCLA, Pitt and St. John’s but lost to Mississippi State, North Carolina and Vanderbilt.