Gophers softball coach Jessica Allister described her team’s reaction to not getting one of the NCAA tournament’s top 16 seeds as “disappointment” and “a little bit of shock.”
Athletic director Mark Coyle went to the NCAA and Big Ten, seeking a full explanation.
After revealing the 64-team bracket Sunday, the selection committee finally gave some answers Monday, issuing a statement that cited Minnesota’s relatively soft strength of schedule.
Allister and her players admitted their emotions still were raw one day after the selection show. But they were determined to channel that energy toward their tournament opener Friday against Louisiana Tech in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
“I don’t think anybody’s happy, but you can’t control that,” Allister said. “Life’s not fair, and guess what? Everything that we want to do is still ahead of us.”
The Gophers are riding a 25-game winning streak, but they are heading back on the road because only the top 16 seeds are home for the four-team, double-elimination regionals.
If the Gophers can get past Louisiana Tech, Albany and No. 16 seed Alabama this weekend, they will head to the best-of-three Super Regionals, likely at No. 1-seeded Florida.
Armed with the best record in Division I, at 54-3, the Gophers looked forward to a celebration during the selection show. They were No. 2 in last week’s coaches poll and sat No. 11 in the all-important RPI rankings.
“I thought hosting a regional was a lock and that we had a chance to host a Super [Regional, as a top-eight seed],” Allister said.
Why wouldn’t they? The selection committee itself had ranked the Gophers at No. 7 only eight days earlier. After that, the Gophers went on to win the Big Ten tournament championship, adding to their first conference regular-season title since 1991.
The committee warned its preliminary rankings would “have no bearing on the final bracket.”
But when the bracket flashed on the screen Sunday, “it was kind of silent,” said Maddie Houlihan, a sophomore batting .401. “I didn’t even know. I thought it was like fake. We were mad, sad, angry, whatever. But we took a couple minutes to digest it and tried to find a way to move on.”
The 10-member selection committee was chaired by Keisha Dunlap, a senior associate commissioner from Conference USA. The Star Tribune made repeated attempts to reach Dunlap, but the NCAA said she was unavailable, referring instead to a statement released Monday afternoon by the committee.
It noted that the top 16 seeds went to teams that each had at least one top-10 win (the Gophers had zero) and between four and 18 wins against top-25 teams (the Gophers had two).
“Furthermore, Minnesota’s strength of schedule was 114,” the selection committee said. “The top seeded teams had strength of schedules ranging from [one] to 36. Again, this was a very difficult decision and should not take away from the season that Minnesota has had thus far.”
Considering the RPI rankings already factor in strength of schedule, Allister took issue with the committee finding other ways to downgrade her team. They ranked No. 1 nationally in winning percentage, but the RPI lowered them to No. 11, and the committee used other categories to push them down several more pegs.
“I think when you go back and look at our preseason schedule, we go to Texas and [beat] Texas twice,” Allister said. “We go to the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, sweep Notre Dame and N.C. State. Go to LSU, beat LSU on their home field. Go to Fresno [State], who’s a top-20 team last year, beat Fresno. Go up to Washington, go to Cal, go to Oregon State.
“ I think it’s a tough thing to swallow when you hear that that schedule’s not good enough because I’m not quite sure what else we could have done in the preseason.”
Coyle added: “I don’t know what else Coach Allister and those student-athletes would have to do. For us not to be in the top 16 is disappointing.”
Allister went to work on her players’ psyches right after Sunday night’s announcement. She was determined to keep them focused, even as social media raged with commentary about the bracket.
Asked if she is concerned about the impact the NCAA snub could have on recruiting, Allister said, “I hope every softball player in the Upper Midwest says, ‘We’re going to prove them wrong. And I’m going to come to Minnesota, and we’re going to prove them wrong.’ ”