TUPPER: SDSU loses but ultimately wins
Poor USD. Even when it wins, it loses.
On March 10, the University of South Dakota women's basketball team beat South Dakota State University 72-58. It was a Summit League semifinal game at Sioux Falls Arena.
SDSU's Jackrabbits were the No. 1 seed and the five-time defending tournament champions. A loss to anyone would have been disappointing; the loss to bitter rival USD was excruciating.
For the victor, the spoils were at first delicious: An upset win over an in-state foe, and an eventual win in the Summit League title game that sent USD to its first-ever appearance in the NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Tournament.
But the sweet taste of Jackrabbit blood quickly turned sour in the Coyotes' mouth. The reward for their success was a trip to Ames, Iowa, where they were dispatched 81-62 by Stanford University in front of 6,759 spectators, only some of whom were USD fans. Not bad, but a sudden and anticlimactic end to what had been an exciting post-season run.
That was March 22. For the past 12 days, the Coyotes have been home watching other teams play on television.
Meanwhile, SDSU accepted a spot in the Women's National Invitation Tournament, which is better known as the WNIT and is basically a consolation bracket for good teams who fell short of the NCAA tournament.
The Jacks opened WNIT play March 20 and steamrolled to Wednesday night's semifinal round. Their first four games were home in Brookings, where they beat Butler, Creighton, Minnesota and Indiana. The combined attendance at those games was 11,256.
So, who was really the winner of that Summit League game in Sioux Falls last month? It seemed like a great victory for the Coyotes, but it resulted in only two more games, neither of which was in their home arena. The Jacks, because of their loss to USD, played four more games at home in front of thousands of additional fans and were scheduled to play a fifth WNIT game Wednesday night in the semifinal round at the University of Texas at El Paso.
I contend that in terms of fan excitement and recruiting momentum, SDSU will benefit more from its WNIT run than USD will benefit from its single game in the NCAA tournament.
And therein lies the paradox of Division I success for both newly minted Division I schools. Making the NCAA tournament five years in a row was great for SDSU, but by the fifth year, it became somewhat routine and even discouraging. It was clear that SDSU had a very good women's basketball program, but the program was also clearly a step below elite status and never had a great chance at advancing deep into the tournament. The same was abundantly clear about USD this season.
I won't argue that either team should throw Summit League Tournament games to end up in the WNIT, but I will argue that this season, the WNIT was a much better fit for SDSU.
You may say I'm biased, and you'd be right. I'm an SDSU alumnus.
Yet there's no denying that on Wednesday night, one of South Dakota's Division I women's basketball teams played in front of a sold-out crowd of 12,000 people in a post-season tournament.
The other sat idle in Vermillion, its season long over.