COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Slingshots will be optional when No. 8 Princeton plays No. 9 Green Bay on Saturday in what the NCAA will tell you is a showcase for aspiring Davids everywhere, but is really only proof of a deck stacked against two of the best programs in the country.
Princeton is 30-0, ranked No. 13 in both of the primary national polls and No. 12 in the RPI.
Green Bay is No. 22 in the RPI, No. 30 in the AP poll and has a 27-4 record.
While the opening game in College Park has every chance to be one of the best games of the first round, it shouldn't happen. It shouldn't happen on a court where No. 1 seed Maryland will play later in the day against No. 16 New Mexico State. It shouldn't happen between two programs whose presence in this game is proof that the respect accorded them is still too often directly proportional to the athletic department budgets of the schools they play.
"The committee is very excited about the Green Bay-Princeton matchup," NCAA women's basketball committee chairwoman Dru Hancock said during a television interview with ESPN when the bracket was released. "They'll have a chance to show the entire country what they can do."
If it's possible to audibly pat someone on the head, she accomplished it with those words.
The message, it seemed, was that those two cute little programs go over there and play their game before noon on Saturday and show us how plucky they are before the inevitable two days later against the Terrapins. Show us what they can do because we can't be bothered to look beyond strength of schedule data.
"We hope it doesn't send a negative message," Hancock said later on a conference call, on the subject of what mid-major programs should think of seeing an unbeaten team seeded behind 28 teams in the bracket. "Again, we spent a lot of time on Princeton. And their strength of schedule didn't help them at all. And what we found, or I found, over the last five years on the committee is that teams really need to schedule teams in the top 50.
"Whether they win them or not, it may not be as important as the fact they've tried to schedule them."
And yet what is David supposed to do when Goliath doesn't want to play?
Even as she talked again and again about how Princeton was hurt by its schedule, Hancock and her committee made it more difficult for Princeton to find those games against top-50 opponents (presumably, by the way, referring to the RPI top 50, the same rankings the committee chose to minimize on Princeton's résumé). There is now even less incentive for an ACC or Pac-12 school to play Princeton than there was a week ago. Why play a game against a team when the credit for winning it doesn't match the effort required to do so?
"I think the seed actually made it a little more challenging because I don't know what's in it for the high majors at that point," Princeton coach Courtney Banghart said this week. "Obviously 12 of our 16 nonconference games were on the road. We can't even get the top teams to play us on the road, much less at home."
Princeton played more road games than any team in a major conference. It went to Michigan during the middle of a week in December when classes were still in session -- not ideal academically, but valuable against a program coming off three successive seasons of at least 20 wins and postseason appearances. It played at Duquesne, Fordham and Hampton -- teams that went 73-26 and combined for two NCAA tournament appearances and one WNIT appearance a season ago and are 62-33 this season. It played at American, which showed its class Friday in the first round against third-seeded Iowa, and at Pitt, a winning ACC team that is a No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament.
It didn't try to schedule difficult games?
Asked specifically what role Princeton's travels played in the evaluation process, the committee chair who works for the Big 12 was brief.
"We never discussed it," Hancock said.
Well, good to know they considered all available information.
There are a handful of coaches in major conferences who will play anyone, Purdue's Sharon Versyp and Oklahoma's Sherri Coale notable among them. Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw went to Central Michigan when Crystal Bradford's presence made that tricky, and will go to South Dakota State next year. Stanford's Tara VanDerveer has made multiple trips to play Gonzaga on the road and paid the price for playing Chattanooga on its court this season. But the truth is too many coaches in major conferences want nothing to do with the potential embarrassment of an unsuccessful trip to Green Bay, Princeton, Gonzaga, South Dakota State or a dozen other mid-major programs better coached and run than their major peers.
"We're going to continue to schedule the best we can, obviously recognizing that we're one half of that scheduling equation," Banghart said. "And I think on the national level, the committee, as they think about growing the game and ensuring that we have full representation of the best teams, they have to think critically as well in that case."
Not to mention that the more successful a mid-major program becomes and the greater connection it makes with its community, the less it can sell its soul for the kind of games the committee apparently demands. Ranked about 70 places ahead of Princeton in strength of schedule, Green Bay did just about everything a mid-major program can to enhance that number. It played road games at Marquette, Vanderbilt and Purdue in the span of five days -- unlucky in that all three to varying degrees had disappointing seasons. As it does almost every year, it went to a neutral-site holiday tournament to get games against Arizona State, Connecticut and Georgia Tech. But going to those tournaments eats up a significant portion of what isn't a big budget to begin with, and while Green Bay will go anywhere it can for a game, it will go only if the contract includes a return game at its own Kress Center.
"We feel like one of our priorities in our scheduling is to bring good home games to our fans," said Green Bay assistant coach Megan Vogel, a former mid-major star at South Dakota State who is in charge of scheduling for coach Kevin Borseth. "We draw really well. Our fans want to see big-time BCS-level opponents or good mid-major opponents back in the Kress; I don't go out there and look for guarantee games. It's just not for what our staff wants as a priority."
Princeton has received most of the attention this week because of its unbeaten record and the perceived injustice of its seed, but Green Bay's situation is just as damning. The Phoenix were resigned to a seed somewhere between No. 7 and No. 10. That despite losing only four times: an expected loss against Connecticut, losses at Vanderbilt and Dayton when they had the ball with opportunities to win, and a league game at Oakland, the one true blemish. With that résumé, which comes attached to a program with more consecutive winning seasons than any but Tennessee, and 17 consecutive conference championships, Green Bay was resigned to a marginal seed. How does that help grow the game?
The committee had a chance to do something for the good of the game without sacrificing the bracket's integrity. It missed its first opportunity when it seeded Princeton eighth. But even if we accept that seed for a second, Hancock and the people in that room had every opportunity to pair Princeton and Green Bay against those teams they think they should schedule. Among the No. 9 seeds, only Green Bay was a mid-major. Among the No. 8 seeds, only Princeton was a mid-major.
Scheduling shouldn't be the story. It should be about the Lukan sisters for Green Bay, players worth the price of admission solely for the way they play defense. It should be about Princeton guard Michelle Miller, a 3-point markswoman and a soon-to-be Rhodes scholar. It should be about a Green Bay team that was too young a season ago now living up to the expectations of the program's cherished "Green Bay Way." It should be about Princeton turning defense from a weakness into a strength.
The story should be about two programs that make players better, play entertaining basketball and do it with fewer resources than teams from major conferences.
Unfortunately, part of the story is the ceiling on mid-major teams that only stunts the growth of the sport. "Honestly, I don't know how any of the bracketology and stuff works," Princeton forward Annie Tarakchian said. "So I was just excited to see our name up there as is. This whole process is just cool and exciting. It's fun to be here; this is March Madness. And after [Thursday in the men's tournament], you see that seedings aren't that big of a say. There were so many upsets. Being the 8-seed, it makes us the underdog, I guess, again. And I love being the underdog, so I'm all for it.
"I just want to be in the tournament and dancing. It's fun."
Saturday should be a whole lot of fun. It just won't be fair.