By Jeffrey Swindoll
Waco will play host to just a fraction of the madness to ensue in college basketball across the country. For the second-straight year, the Ferrell Center will be a venue for games of the first and second round of the NCAA tournament.
No. 5 Baylor (two-seed), Northwestern (seven-seed), Arkansas (10-seed) and Northwestern State (15-seed) are the teams included in the opening games in Waco. Northwestern faces Arkansas at 11 a.m. today and Baylor plays Northwestern State following the first game for a planned 1:30 p.m. start.
As most NCAA tournaments go, especially early on in the bracket, there is unfamiliarity and mystery to the matchups. That’s right. Two schools with Northwestern in their titles were put in the same venue for the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament. Don’t be mistaken by the similarities in their names though. There’s a uniqueness to every team in the opening rounds hosted in Waco.
The Lady Bears swept the Big 12 regular season and postseason titles this season. It Baylor’s fifth-straight time doing so and it is now Baylor’s second year in-a-row getting to start the tournament at home for as much as two rounds.
Baylor is a team that, of all teams, should know not to overlook anyone. Few predicted the Lady Bears to do anything extraordinary this season yet pulled off an even more dominant season in Big 12 play than when they had All-American Odyssey Sims last year.
“I think that teams are reflections of their coach’s personality,” Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey said. “We’re never going to get on a floor where we aren’t prepared. We’re never going to take anything for granted. We respect everyone and fear no one. My coaching staff has been a part of games where we were the favorite and lost. We’ve been a part of games where we weren’t the favorite and won. It’s the nature of the business.”
Just looking each team’s resume this season, there’s no denying that Baylor is the favorite to advance. In addition to Baylor’s advantage “on paper,” the Lady Bears are playing at home. There is a reason the NCAA chose Waco as a host city for the first two rounds – fans show up to games. Baylor’s fan base is one of the most consistent fan bases in the country and that will aid the Lady Bears tremendously in the dawn of their hopeful road to the Final Four.
Many players on this Lady Bears roster have done this before. Last season, Baylor reached the Elite Eight, eventually falling to Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. Should Baylor advance to the regional final, it may very well end up being a rematch of last years’ season-ending game for the Lady Bears. Only this time it would be in Oklahoma City, and not on Notre Dame’s home floor.
“It was definitely a growing up process,” Davis said. “I am more comfortable this year. I think being a freshman coming into March Madness for the first time it can be kind of overwhelming. Now that I have been here before and have been through the ropes I am more confident.”
The Wildcats are playing in their first NCAA tournament bid since 1993. Northwestern head coach Joe McKeown noted a few milestones his team has reached in recent years, one of them being its appearance in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament last season, winning “some big games”. McKeown said the program’s evolution thus far has been fun for him to be a part of. This has helped the overall maturity of the team.
“I think for our program these guys are really mature from the standpoint of they understand they have built so many bricks right now and they have paid a lot of dues,” McKeown said. “They understand that they also have this opportunity that they don’t know if they are going to have again.”
Northwestern has reach the NCAA tournament due mostly to its trigger-happy playstyle on offense. The Wildcats averaged 72.3 points per game and 17.3 assists per game, shooting .437 from the field and averaging a +9.4 scoring margin this season.
“We are a very aggressive team so we want to make sure we keep that same mindset out there,” sophomore guard Ashley Deary said. “We just have to pick and choose when to push the transition, and when to pull it back out and run the offense.”
The Wildcats are a bit undersized though, consequently affecting their rebounding this season. Northwestern averaged 37.4 rebounds a game, an overall -3.4 margin to its opponents this year.
The Razorbacks are a strong, defensive team, making for an interesting matchup against a very offense-heavy Northwestern team. From top to bottom, Arkansas is rough-and-tough team, head coach Jimmy Dykes said.
“We are here to win the ball game not just play in the ball game,” Dykes said. “One thing I love about this ball club is their resiliency and their toughness, both mentally and physically, and I trust the two seniors to set that tone.”
“We rely on our defense and rebounding,” senior guard Calli Berna said. “Those are things that you can control no matter what gym or country that you are in. Something that we hang our hat on is our defense. We are going to do what we do best and go in there like every other night and see how it goes.”
The lowest-seeded team of the four to play in Waco, Northwestern State, though heavily unfavored, has relished various moments being the underdog over the years and even just this season alone. Their boldness will be crucial when facing the Lady Bears on their home floor in the opening game.
“Our players weren’t afraid when we went into Tennessee last year when we were a 16-seed and were down by two at the half,” Northwestern State head coach Brooke Stoehr. “I don’t think our team will be overwhelmed because they’ve been in this environment during the regular season. We’ve played at Texas, A&M, Arkansas and Oklahoma State this year so our team isn’t going to walk out there and be in awe.”
Mulkey and the Lady Bears aren’t exactly known for messing around in the postseason very much. It can be daunting for a low-seed like Northwestern State, but the players and coaches are sure of what they set out for themselves to accomplish.
“Going into this game, we’re going to be ourselves still,” junior guard Janelle Perez said. We’ll use a lot of drive and penetration, kick outs and threes. We’re not going to change anything. We’re going to do what we have been doing and hopefully knock down some shots.”