Lately it seems that the current success level of a program is growing as a barometer for the validity of said program as an option for recruits. Everyone likes a winner and the attention given to leading programs helps open doors and creates name recognition among prospects, their families and coaches. Still, it's always a disappointment to hear of a recruit who is limiting her options to only tournament or postseason teams. There are a lot of programs that are tremendous opportunities in every respect but are still one or two recruits away from challenging for on-court success.
How much stock you want to put into wins, losses, accomplishments and championships is entirely up to you. Of course they're a good indicator that a program is doing something right and it would be foolish to discount them completely. At the same time, it's all too easy to get caught up in the moment of a good season or tournament run and overlook the program's reality. You need to give consideration to the long-term success of a program and coach. If a program's success is paramount in your decision, be sure it's your interpretation of the achievement, not the one a coach tries to sell to you.
In the recruiting process, success often speaks for itself and needs no real help from coaches. Other times you'll find recruiters browbeating prospects with results.
This is the time of the year when a lot of college coaching staffs are updating their profile in the eyes of potential recruits with their most recent deeds on the court. A few weeks back I wrote about how coaches will spin their won-loss record and what that percentage might mean in the scheme of things for a recruit. The other feather in their cap that has coaches hollering from the mountaintops is postseason participation.
It's hard to imagine that any teams go into the year without the goal of playing beyond their regular-season schedule. No matter which tournament a program happens to play in, postseason participation is a tangible affirmation of some level of success. Just what that level is and what it might illustrate for you about a school, staff and your future is up to you.
Before we talk about those tournaments, it's important to define postseason play. There are programs so desperate to talk about success in March that they will play up wins in their conference tournament as if they were the equivalent of cutting down the nets at the Final Four. While it may well be a sign of progress in a program's growth or a reflection of a late season surge, it's not quite banner hanging material. Winning the whole thing is a different matter and provides something else to brag about: an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The 64-team NCAA Tournament is the gold standard and a reward for a successful season. A spot in the bracket on Selection Monday buys legitimate credibility that even the best recruiter can't create on her own. Automatic bids go to 31 different conference tournament champions (or regular-season champion in the Ivy League's case), leaving 33 at-large bids. Those teams selected as at-large participants have their entire body of work validated by the selection committee and the opportunity to prove on the floor that they belong among the elite for that particular season.
The WNIT in turn takes arguably the next best 64, with 31 automatic bids going to the highest finishing team in each conference's regular season not receiving an opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament. The remaining at-large bids go to teams that the WNIT terms the "best available" with a season record, including conference tournament games, that exceeds .500 or better.
Last year saw the addition of a third postseason tournament, the 16 team Women's Basketball Invitational. With 128 teams already out of the mix (37 percent of the 343 NCAA Division I teams) you're now dipping pretty deep into the pool of talent. The combined final record of last year's participants was 275-212 (.564) with two teams finishing with sub-.500 final records.
From a participation standpoint, any opportunity to continue playing is a great thing, particularly for a young team or a building program. But from the recruiting perspective, a program touting its postseason achievement has to be viewed to some degree as a watered-down claim.
Programs are big about recognizing their achievements. Rings, watches, shirts, hats and banners all highlight their performance and rightfully so. Good college coaches like nothing more than to add some reminder of success to the stationary sent to prospects and to wear some of that jewelry (I'm far too old to call it "bling") around potential recruits.
Be sure to look into claims of "postseason success" -- look into what tournament a team played in and how it got there. See whether it's a tradition, a budding trend or a first. The postseason may be a noteworthy claim, but it may not carry quite the weight it used to.
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Mark Lewis is the national recruiting coordinator for ESPN HoopGurlz. Twice ranked as one of the top 25 assistant coaches in the game by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, he has more than 20 years of college coaching experience at Memphis State, Cincinnati, Arizona State, Western Kentucky and, most recently, Washington State. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.