ZUVER: Ball State women’s basketball could be in for a ‘rankings problem’ down the road

Certain teams are receiving votes for the AP Top 25, but Ball State isn’t. Despite more attention from other polls, will it be enough to make a case for an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament if they need it?

Ball State womens basketball team poses for a picture after their victory against Kent State Jan. 31 at Worthen Arena. The Cardinals defeated the Flashes 57-46. Andrew Berger, DN
Ball State womens basketball team poses for a picture after their victory against Kent State Jan. 31 at Worthen Arena. The Cardinals defeated the Flashes 57-46. Andrew Berger, DN

The Ball State women’s basketball team (19-2, 9-0 MAC) is finally getting some recognition for what it has done on the court this season. The Cardinals have shown up in two different rankings, the mid-major poll and the coaches poll, but not the AP Top 25 media poll. That poll is the main way the majority of women’s college basketball fans get a gauge on who the best teams are in the sport.

The Cardinals have been ranked third in the collegeinsider.com mid-major poll (rankings for a number of non-Power-Five conferences) for eight straight weeks. After its Jan. 21 win against the fourth-ranked team in that poll, Toledo, Ball State got six votes from various coaches around the country to be in the USA Today top 25 coaches poll the following week. This week, it got 11 votes in that poll.

Since that win against the Rockets was nationally televised on CBS Sports Network, I was half-expecting Ball State’s name to show up in the ‘others receiving votes’ tab for the AP media poll the next day, but the Cardinals were nowhere to be found. After blowout wins against Miami and Eastern Michigan last week, they still didn’t show up in this week's poll. 

In fact, when you scroll down to the bottom of the AP Poll page to the ‘others receiving votes section’, you can find other mid-major teams who received votes in the AP poll despite having less appealing resumes than Ball State. And when you dig deeper, you might find there isn’t much symmetry between the mid-major poll, coaches poll and AP top 25 poll. 

This reflects a disconnect between the coaches and the media, major and small conferences, and fans trying to learn more about who the best teams are in women’s college basketball.

It could also present a disconnect between Ball State and the NCAA women’s selection committee when selection Monday rolls around in March. So, let’s take a look at its resume with under two months left in the season.

The Cardinals have just two losses this season, coming against perennial blue-bloods Notre Dame and UConn. Those two teams are safely in the top 15 of the AP Poll. 

The reason Ball State has caught the eyes of some is mainly due to two wins against Power-Five opponents at the Sun Coast Challenge Dec. 19 and 21. The Cardinals handled the Pittsburgh Panthers and then defeated the Georgia Bulldogs, an NCAA tournament team from a year ago, on a last-second shot from junior Ally Becki.

It’s also worth mentioning their win on the road against the Saint Louis Billikens, who won their conference tournament last year to get into the big dance. In the season opener, Ball State dominated the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles, who also made the tournament a year ago. 

Now compare other teams’ resumes and where they are ranked in the AP. 

The Fairfield Stags out of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) are 18-1. In this week's AP Poll voting, the Stags got thirteen votes to be in the top 25. Yet, they are a full seven spots behind the Cardinals in that mid-major poll and received seven votes to be in the coaches poll.

The Stags have Power-Five wins over a Rutgers team with just six wins on the year and a 14-9 St. John's team. I’d argue Ball State plays in a better conference than the MAAC and has better Power Five wins, yet no votes from the media. 

Give a team like the Richmond Spiders credit: They play in the Atlantic-10 conference which isn’t accounted for in the mid-major poll, but they’ve given teams like Villanova and Michigan State all they can handle in close losses.

But where is their statement win? A tight win against a 15-5 Drake Bulldogs team? Maybe, but they have zero wins over Power-Five opponents. Before their loss last week to Duquesne, the Spiders received a vote to get in the top 25 in both the media poll and the coaches poll.

The Green Bay Phoenix of the Horizon League Conference got a vote for the media poll for the week of Jan. 22. Even after winning both of their games last week, they didn’t receive a vote this week. 

The Phoenix have 18 wins and four losses this year. They toppled No. 21 Creighton and previously ranked Washington State in non-conference play, but, they lost by double digits to Northern Iowa Nov. 6, a team Ball State beat by double-digits almost two weeks later. Green Bay holds the sixth spot in the mid-major poll, three spots behind Ball State. 

Lastly, the Virginia Cavaliers of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), a Power-Five conference, got a vote for the media poll for the week of Jan. 23. They got none in the coaches poll that week, and I tend to agree with their frame of thinking.

When you take a peek at the Cavaliers’ schedule, a couple of things stand out: seven losses against ranked teams, but a 10-11 record. The ACC is a tough conference, but they are barely .500.

Later that week, they lost at home to Pittsburgh. That’s right, the same Pittsburgh team Ball State already beat earlier this year. Virginia rightfully didn’t get any votes to get into the AP poll this week. 

The Cardinals haven't lost in almost two months. They’re on a 13-game win-streak and have held steady while other teams have faltered. Still, they haven’t received a vote from the media.

There is no easy way to do rankings in any college sport because of the number of teams and different levels of competition that reside in each conference. In women’s basketball, there aren’t different computer rankings that are widely accessible to properly assess all the teams. 

On the men’s side, they can look at KenPom rankings or measure things called ‘Quadrant 1 wins’, meaning a team won on the road versus a team ranked in the top 50 in RPI. Oh that’s right, there is also the Rating Percentage Index (RPI), Basketball Power Index (BPI) and 15 other acronyms ending in ‘PI’ that make my head explode. A fan, selection committee member or media member can go to any one of those and make a case for a team to get recognition. There’s also more voters for the men’s media poll (61) than there are for the women’s poll (35). 

Cardinals basketball fans should be excited about getting some national recognition, but with that recognition coming from places other than the AP, will it be enough to receive an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament? The fact they still have yet to get votes in the national media poll makes me nervous.

Let’s lay out a hypothetical situation. Ball State wins the rest of its regular season games (or maybe a close loss at Toledo), wins first and second round games in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) tournament, but loses a close game in the MAC championship. 

Based on the lack of attention from the national media, it doesn’t make me confident that the selection committee knows a whole lot about what the Cardinals have achieved this season and will extend an invite to them for the tournament. 

Head coach Brady Sallee put together a challenging non-conference schedule to test his team and  to give the Cardinal a chance to make the MAC a two-bid league if they don’t capture the automatic bid. 

If Ball State doesn’t get that automatic bid, they could be in the middle of a classic case of a mid-major being left out of the tournament in favor of a team who plays on TV more, has a bigger brand and is in a bigger conference. 

As the women’s game continues to garner more attention, the mid-majors need more attention too.

Contact Caleb Zuver via email at cmzuver@bsu.edu or on X @zuves35.


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