Analysis: As mid-majors close the gap and pull upsets, parity grows in women’s game for even more Madness

Upsets, buzzer beaters and busted brackets are the foundation of March Madness, making this the best month of the year every year. Sunday night, after the first day of first-round women’s games went chalk, with every higher seed advancing — the first time that’s happened since 2010 — my phone started to buzz with texts from nervous friends. Were we really not going to have any upsets in the first round?

Part of why the men's tournament is so beloved is because everyone — especially Virginia — knows anything can happen. But the women's side doesn't have the same allure because many people (falsely) believe it's only top seeds that advance.

Relax, I told my friends. There’s still Monday, and some team is sure to catch a higher seed sleeping. We’ll get at least one Cinderella in Texas, maybe more.

Turns out we got three … all before dinner time.

Thirteenth-seeded Wright State, 12th-seeded Belmont and 11th-seeded BYU all slayed their own Goliaths on Monday, sending fourth-seeded Arkansas, fifth-seeded Gonzaga and sixth-seeded Rutgers packing, respectively, a boon to parity in the women’s game.

“I think [parity] is very important, the fans would love that,” said Wright State head coach Katrina Merriweather after the Raiders pulled off just the seventh 13-4 upset in women’s tournament history. “We love the idea of a David vs. Goliath and the opportunity to win games that people think we shouldn’t win based on our seeding.”

This week, more eyes than usual are on the women’s NCAA Tournament for a couple reasons.

First, with just a handful of fans and media attending men’s and women’s games in person, everyone is parked on their couch or at their desk watching on TV and the computer, allowing viewers to flip back and forth among eight channels and watch tons of basketball. Second, the glaring disparity in tournament quality and amenities has generated tons of social media outrage, and players and supporters have taken the opportunity to remind everyone that the best way to support women's sports isn’t to write angry tweets, but tune into games.

If you were smart enough to do that, you watched some terrific basketball, likely from a bunch of mid-major players you hadn’t heard of.

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Wright State guard Angel Baker is just one uber-talented player from a mid-major in the women's NCAA Tournament. (Photo: Stephen Spillman, AP)

Much of the parity growth over the last decade or two in the men’s game can be attributed to the exponential improvement of handful of mid-majors that have worked to close the gap between themselves and the Power Five schools. Some, like Gonzaga, the overall No. 1 seed in the men’s tournament and a favorite to win it all, have become so dominant on the national stage that they’ve mostly shed the mid-major label.

Now, it’s the women’s turn.

One advantage the women have according to BYU coach Jeff Judkins, whose team battled back from 12 down to knock off Rutgers and legendary coach C. Vivian Stringer: The women’s game is a long way from worrying about one-and-done players heading to the pros.

“With the good teams, the players don’t leave, they stay around three or four years and that means teams are really, really good,” Judkins said. “Would it be nice when a kid is really good to be able to go to the WNBA [for exposure]? Yeah, it would. But women’s basketball has gotten better because not so many players are jumping and going to the WNBA [early].”

Judkins, who was a men’s assistant at Utah before moving to the women’s game, also credited his colleagues: “There’s a lot of really good coaches in the women’s game,” he said. “I coached the men for 10 years and have gone against some of the best like Rick Pitino, Bobby Knight. These women’s [coaches] are just as good or better.”

He also brought up that each year, women’s basketball gets a little more exposure: BYU, for example, is on TV for its home games. This year, for the first time, ESPN is broadcasting every women’s game on one of four national channels.

Another bonus: Many more players are much more skilled, which means there’s plenty of talent left to be recruited after top 25 programs — made up almost exclusively of Power Five schools — hand out scholarship offers.

Angel Baker from Wright State is an example. The 5-foot-8 junior guard from Indianapolis was sensational in Wright State’s upset over Arkansas — easily the biggest shocker of the day given Arkansas’ ability to score in bunches. She scored 26 points, including the go-ahead 3-pointer with 29.1 seconds left, a dagger she stuck in front of Wright State’s bench with an Arkansas hand in her face. She also grabbed 12 rebounds.

Her play didn’t come as a surprise to Merriweather, who has watched Baker drain big-time shots in a season when she averaged 18.4 points and 5.2 rebounds.

“I think Angel Baker is one of the best guards in the country and I know people may be surprised that she’s at Wright State,” Merriweather said. “But there’s a lot of really good guards in the country, so when people pass over and make their choice about who they want, those of us who know what we want go after them 100%. It’s all about recruiting.”

As for the notion that mid-majors aren’t playing with a full deck and won’t be as appealing to prospects, Merriweather, who coached previously at Purdue, isn’t buying it.

“Our focus is just different when you don’t have the bells and whistles,” she said — not less than.

Mid-majors like Wright State, BYU and Belmont — not to mention Troy, which pushed No. 2 Texas A&M to the brink before losing — have plenty to offer, now including a history of NCAA Tournament success. Their players, often overlooked, believe in themselves, their coaches and their schools, seeding be damned. Women’s basketball is better for it, and fans reap the benefits.

In the end, it all results in more madness. And in March, that’s all we really want.

Follow reporter Lindsay Schnell on Twitter @Lindsay_Schnell

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