Cheers greeted the traditional roll call of team names on Selection Monday.
Around the country, Division I teams were named, seeded and placed into the NCAA Tournament bracket in preparation for opening day on Friday. Unlike some years past there were few, if any surprises.
At UCLA, the 24-8, third-seeded Bruins learned that they’d host rounds one and two of the Bridgeport regional, and that they’d face Hawaii in Saturday’s first match up. Power house South Florida will take on Colorado State in game two.
UCLA coach Cori Close, whose teams have played in the Tournament before, called the invitation “a privilege that never gets old.” She said the Bruins relished the chance to play on their home floor.
“It’s a huge advantage, and we’re right in the middle of finals and get to stay home,” Close said. “We are really trying to build a fan base in LA, and this will help us do that.”
Close isn’t looking any further ahead than one game.
“We’re going to go do our homework so that when we begin practice on Wednesday, we’ll be prepared,” she said. “We treat every opponent the same, no matter what the seed.”
UCLA ended the regular season in roller coaster fashion, as they soared to an overtime Pac-12 Tournament semifinal win in dramatic fashion, and were crushed by Oregon State the next night in the championship game. Close said she takes responsibility for not bringing the team “back down to Earth” in time for the title game. Star guard Jordin Canada called it a learning experience.
“The OSU game humbled us a lot,” she said. “We went back into practice knowing we didn’t want to feel the same way we felt in that game again.”
Last year the Bruins won the WNIT. Canada said it was exciting to see UCLA selected live on national television.
“We’re excited,” she said. “I’m very proud of this team. We’ve grown a lot.”
Though UCLA will have to learn Hawaii as a team, Canada already knows guards Briana Harris and Destiny King – both Southern California natives like herself – from her club ball days.
Texas got their highest seed in many years in the Bridgeport bracket, at No. 2. Like the Bruins, the Longhorns get to host this weekend. Coach Karen Aston is excited about both the, and the program’s progress.
“The best thing I can say is that we’ve come a long way in a short period of time, and I’m thrilled, thrilled, thrilled with the fact we get to host in Austin,” she said. “I think I’ll start with that and say that that’s from a body of work. You have to put in consistent work all year long to get the recognition that you need to be able to host. So I’m excited. Really, really excited for our team and our fans that came every night to support us, knowing that was one of our goals.”
Aston is also guiding her players to take on one game at a time and not look ahead.
“I do think that we still have to stay in the moment,” she said. “I think we have to take the first game and hopefully we get to that second one and then we’ll reset and see what happens after that. But I feel like our team is still growing in the area of learning how to handle the tournament.”
BYU won the regular season West Coast Conference title, but were upset in the tournament final by San Francisco. On selection night, they received a No 7 seed, and will play No. 10 Missouri in the Bridgeport regional. Coach Jeff Judkins had jitters Monday.
“I got a little nervous there, but I’m happy,” he said. “If we had won the tournament, we would’ve been a little higher. I’ve seen Missouri play and it will be a heck of a challenge. It’s a great basketball atmosphere in Austin. It will be a lot of fun. Hopefully we can play like we’ve played all year.”
In the Dallas regional, Oklahoma State was selected and given a No. 7 seed, and will face No. 10 St. Bonaventure. This marks coach Jim Littell’s fourth NCAA Tournament appearance with the Cowgirls in as many years at helm of the program.
“We’re very excited,” he said of the berth. “These kids are very deserving of an NCAA bid, and we’ve got to go to work to find some things out about St. Bonaventure and get a scout started as quick as possible, but we need to enjoy this. It doesn’t happen to everyone.”
Littell said earlier this season that he’s not coached a closer team in three decades in the business.
“It has been a very special year for not just the players, but the coaches as well,” Littell said. “They’re all fun to be around and fun to go to work with every day. They’ve given us effort all year long, and when you’re around people that are not only good basketball players but are excellent people and represent your university and your basketball program in the right way, it makes for a fun year.”
Star guard Brittney Martin said the team is very motivated right now.
“I think we’re all getting in the gym by ourselves, and I think it’s showing in the way we practice,” she said. “We’re all getting in the gym, practicing on our own and making shots.”
No. 11 James Madison, the Colonial Athletic Association regular-season and tournament champion, will face No. 6 DePaul, who was upset in the Big East Tournament, in the Dallas bracket. Dukes coach Kenny Brooks said it will be a tough challenge that he relishes.
“We know we’re playing one of the better teams in the country and one of the better coaches in the country in Doug Bruno. I’m looking forward to that opportunity because he’s somebody that I consider a mentor and someone I want to model my program after,” Brooks said.
“It’s going to be a tough battle, we understand that. We know that they’re going to be hungry after losing in the semifinals of their conference tournament on their home court.”
In the Sioux Falls regional, No. 8 George Washington will square off Friday against No. 9 Kansas State in what promises to be a hard-fought match up. The Colonials returned 13 players from last season, when they lost to Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament first round. Coach Jonathan Tsipis said his team has grown a lot in a year, and will be ready for the Wildcats.
“I think a big part of our poor start against Gonzaga (last year) was because we didn’t take good care of the basketball,” Tsipis said. “I think now they have that confidence and they’ve been in every part of that situation. They’ve been on that flight, or that bus ride down to the site, they’ve been in the press conference, they’ve been in the open practice to the media and they understand what it’s like to be on that stage.”
“You can prepare them for a lot of things throughout the year: level of competition, style, all those things. The one thing now that we have an advantage of is a group that’s going to be on that floor that has NCAA experience.”