Sun Belt: The Case of Western Kentucky

By Jean Neuberger - October 24, 2006

Imagine the scenario that Mary Taylor Cowles was in last March. You're 24-6 on the year, after finishing 12-2 in the conference, winning the regular season title. Your RPI ranking is 18, and strength of schedule ranking is 44. You feel like you're a shoe-in for the NCAA tournament, even though you lost to Middle Tennessee, on their home court, in the conference tournament championship game. So, you, your staff, your team and members of the athletic department gather to see where you're going to be headed to when you find're not in the tournament field.

"The Sun Belt hasn't been getting the respect it deserves," said Cowles, whose team turned around and marched through the WNIT, losing only to Kansas State by a point in Manhattan. "We were ranked as the ninth toughest conference in Division I women's basketball, yet we only get one team into the tournament."

This year, the Hilltoppers want to leave nothing to chance.

"I really like the maturity and experience of this team," said Cowles. "I love the senior leadership. It's really positive, and it's making us a more unified team. This team enjoys being around each other. We have four new players that are really going to have to step up, but my staff, the team, and myself really have confidence in these young players that they will get the job done."

Western Kentucky plans to utilize this depth to speed things up to wear down other teams.

"We want to run offensively," Cowles said. "We want to use a lot of defensive pressure full court, and use a lot of speed to create baskets with our defense. In women's basketball, defense is the real name of the game."

Cowles is pleased not only with her team, but her position as coach of her alma mater.

"I'm fortunate to be here," she said. "We've had great coaches here, who have fielded great players as well. It's how we've gotten to three Final Fours. The commitment to basketball here is amazing."

However, the sadness of last year's travesty still lingers in the mind of Cowles.

"I don't talk about it, and our players don't talk about it either," she said. "But the support we got from other coaches and media from being slighted, that helped us. When the field was announced, the first question was from a Los Angeles writer who wanted to know why we weren't in the tournament. That felt good to realize it wasn't just us, it was the whole country that thought we were slighted. All that support motivates us this year."

"The shame," she added, "is that I got to come back as coach, and most of our team gets to come back as players. But I had three seniors, and that was their last chance to play for a national championship."

Cowles put on a brave face, but it was clear that the slight last year, not only to her and her team, but especially her seniors, hurt her genuinely. I don't blame her one bit. It's hard for me to comprehend how a team that is ranked so high RPI-wise, wins 80% of their games, and beats programs like Louisville, Arkansas, and Louisiana Tech along the way doesn't end up in the NCAA tournament.

Here's hoping that WKU makes it without question this season.

Posted by Jean Neuberger at 02:25 PM on October 24, 2006

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