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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

On the Ball

OVC tournament kicks up dust about NCAA transition rule

The University of Southern Indiana women’s basketball team already has had a season for the ages, even though the final chapters have yet to be written. After failing to qualify for the 2023 Ohio Valley Conference tournament in their maiden season in NCAA Division I, the Screaming Eagles easily won the OVC regular season title and secured the league’s No. 1 seed entering this year’s OVC tourney March 6-9 at the Ford Center.

There’s only one problem. Because USI, 22-6 overall and 17-1 in the OVC, is in the second year of a four-year reclassification to Division I, it is ineligible to compete in the NCAA tournament. In other circumstances, the OVC tourney champion would receive the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tourney.

“It’s something we all knew going in,” USI senior forward Meredith Raley says. “Hopefully we will win the OVC tournament and celebrate it and honor it and go to the WNIT.”

As the OVC regular season champions, the Screaming Eagles have met the qualifications for a Women’s National Invitation Tournament bid. (The WNIT is governed separately from the NCAA-sanctioned NIT, which announced in October 2023 that men’s basketball conference regular-season champions will no longer receive an automatic bid to the NIT.)

“Does it hurt to not go to the NCAA tournament? Sure,” says USI women’s head basketball coach Rick Stein, pointing out that there has been discussion of the NCAA relaxing or even ending its four-year NCAA tournament transition rule.

USI Director of Athletics Jon Mark Hall says not making the NCAA tournament is a tough pill to swallow if the Eagles do win the OVC tournament title.

“But this is what we signed up for, and we all knew that this would be a possibility,” Hall says.

He adds that he feels strongly that the NCAA needs to reexamine this long-standing requirement. NCAA officials instituted this rule to discourage a dramatic influx of teams seeking to jump from Division II to Division I as they sought to grab a share of the lucrative NCAA DI tournament pot and play in the nation’s most prestigious division.

“At the time the rule came into play, I am sure there were some valid reasons for the decision,” Hall says. “Intercollegiate athletics has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, and this really needs to be evaluated as soon as possible.

“Again, we knew this going in, and this is what we signed up for, but we hope that the NCAA will look at this because playing for championships is the ultimate experience for a student-athlete,” Hall says.

Team Meeting Sent Eagles Soaring

Raley and Stein point out that this team’s singular focus and togetherness began during a meeting way back on June 4, 2023. With a host of returning players and a talented crop of incoming recruits, USI was destined for success. But it took more than talent. Leadership and resolve also were crucial. Raley helped take the reins.

“Meredith leads by example and leads by her mouth on the court,” Stein says of Raley. “On and off the court, she knows how to communicate.”

Raley, the Eagles’ second-leading scorer (12 points) and rebounder (5.7), has become synonymous with success.

“Every time I talked to (Gibson Southern varsity girls) coach (Kyle) Brasher, he tells me that I helped set the foundation,” says Raley, who played for Brasher her junior and senior years of high school.

Building off the success set by Raley and her prep teammates, Brasher guided this season’s Gibson Southern varsity girls’ team to the Indiana High School Athletic Association Class 3A state championship on Feb. 24. The Titans defeated Norwell 63-60 at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Stein also is a formidable building block to success. After starting for Lionel Sinn’s USI men’s team from 1989-91, Stein served as Chancellor Dugan’s assistant on the women’s team from 1991-99 and now is in his 25th season as head coach. In fact, he has had a hand in just over 600 of the Eagles’ 750-plus women’s basketball victories. He has posted an overall record of 445-260, including a trip to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight in 2001. USI’s best finish in Division II was second in the national tournament in 1997, when Dugan was head coach and Stein was her top assistant.

This year’s team arguably has surpassed those achievements by winning the OVC regular season title — in a 72-64 victory over Morehead State University on Feb. 20 — in just its second season in the NCAA’s upper echelon.

“What these kids have achieved will live forever,” says Stein, a three-time Great Lakes Valley Conference Coach of the Year. “It will never go away.”

While the women blaze into the OVC tournament hoping to capture the title, the USI men barely managed to slip through the door. A late-season loss by Tennessee Tech to Arkansas Little Rock gave USI’s men’s team the eighth seed in the OVC championship. Hall hopes the women can help pick up the slack attendance-wise at the Ford Center with the men battling a down year.

“Our women’s basketball team has had an unbelievable season and clinched our first-ever team OVC championship,” Hall says. “We hope that the Evansville community will come out in full force to see them compete in the OVC tournament. This community has always supported teams and programs that have worked to earn their success, and the women’s basketball program definitely fits this profile. We also think our men’s program has a great chance to make some noise in the tournament. I would encourage the Evansville community to come out and support this great tournament no matter who is participating.”

Like Hall, Evansville Regional Sports Commission Executive Director Brandon McClish thinks perhaps the four-year reclassification rule should be revised, or at least reexamined.

“It is an unfortunate requirement for a university but all a part of the process of becoming Division I,” McClish says. “The new president of the NCAA, Charlie Baker, has actively made positive changes, and I hope that they look at this change soon. Bellarmine was a great example as they went DI and won their (Atlantic Sun) conference tournament but were not available for the NCAA championship tournament.”

Reitz Memorial High School graduate Dylan Penn helped lift Bellarmine men’s basketball to the ASUN tournament title in 2022, but the Knights — like the current USI women — were in the second year of the four-year transition period to DI and, thus, ineligible for the NCAA tournament.

“Putting all emotions aside as a USI graduate, it is the letter of the rule for the NCAA and teams that make the transition have to follow those requirements, McClish says.

The 2024 OVC Tournament runs March 6-9 at the Ford Center, 1 S.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. In the women’s tournament first round, No. 5 Morehead State kicks things off Wednesday at 1 p.m. vs. No. 8 Tennessee State, followed by No. 6 Tennessee Tech at No. 7 Western Illinois at 3:30. The winners of those contests move to the second round to face No. 4 Eastern Illinois at 1 p.m. Thursday and No. 3 University of Tennessee-Martin at 3:30 p.m., respectively. USI has earned a break until its semi-final matchup at 1 p.m. Friday. The winner of its and No. 2 Little Rock’s 3:30 p.m. contests Friday will meet in the women’s championship Saturday at 2 p.m. Per the OVC, should the top-seeded USI women win the tournament title, the OVC runner-up will be awarded the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

In the men’s tournament, USI’s men’s team — 8-23 overall and 5-13 in OVC play — launches the first round Wednesday in a 6:30 p.m. game against fifth-seeded Tennessee State University. No. 6 Southern Illinois University Edwardsville vs. seventh-seeded Eastern Illinois follows at 9 p.m. Thursday’s second round sees No. 4 Western Illinois and No. 3 Morehead State take on the winners of Wednesday’s games at 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m., respectively. Top-seeded Little Rock and No. 2 UT Martin await Thursday’s victors at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Friday. Saturday’s men’s championship game is slated for 7 p.m.

Single-session tickets for adults start at $15 for women’s games and $30 for men’s contests. Children’s single tickets cost $5 and $10, respectively. Spectators can see all sessions for $80.

Can’t attend in person? OVC men’s first- and second- round games will be broadcast on ESPN+. Men’s semi-final games move to ESPNU, and both championships will be streamed on ESPN2. All women’s contests will stream on ESPN+.

The men’s and women’s OVC champions on Saturday punch the first tickets to the NCAA tournament.

Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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