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Wisconsin women’s soccer falls to Iowa and misses the NCAA Tournament, and I have some takes

A conference championship loss ends the Badgers season as their NCAA Tournament bubble bursts.

UW Athletics Communications

On Sunday afternoon, Wisconsin lost the Big Ten Championship, falling 1-0 to Iowa in University Park, Pennsylvania. With the win, Iowa took home their first ever tournament crown, and clinched an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Brookfield native Jenny Cape was the hero for the Hawkeyes, powering a distance effort past Big Ten goalie of the year Jordyn Bloomer in the 64th minute to give the Hawkeyes a lead they’d never relinquish. Iowa completed one of the best college soccer Cinderella stories in recent memory, going from the initial rounds of a tournament they wouldn’t have even qualified in prior years to lifting the trophy. It was a well earned win from a team that came into form at just the right time and showed a poise unlike few other teams can in the spotlight of consecutive elimination matches.

So now that that’s done, let’s get into the fun stuff. The past is the past, and the present is far more discourse-conducive. Because on Monday afternoon, without a bid sealed up by a conference title, the Wisconsin Badgers women’s soccer team wasn’t selected for the NCAA Tournament.

Relatively unsurprisingly, four other Big Ten teams made it as Penn State, Ohio State, Rutgers and Iowa all were considered varying degrees of locks to make the field. The seeding for these teams was a bit unexpected- for example a Penn State team that won the conference regular season title and ranked as high as No. 4 in the coaches poll (with two first place votes as well!) just a week ago having to play a preliminary match in the same region as the consensus top seed Florida State was, in the eyes of this blogger, rather disrespectful.

But we’re not here to get mad and be biased about the woes of other teams in the conference. We’re here to get mad about Wisconsin.

So who did they miss out for and why? Consensus seems to be that the the five schools that got the edge over the Badgers were Iowa, and bubble contenders Ole Miss, Memphis, Colorado and Arizona State. The first of those teams is Iowa. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts around this one. The Hawkeyes beat Wisconsin fair and square in the Big Ten Championship and thoroughly earned their clinched bid with an inspiring “win or go home” run. But for the rest, there are no head to heads to base a comparison off of, and that means we get to be thoroughly subjective in our resume analysis.

Ole Miss is the first team on the list. The Rebels enjoyed a torrid finish to their fall regular season, with back-to-back wins over then-ranked conference foes Georgia and Vanderbilt powering them into a disappointing first round overtime upset conference tournament exit at the hands of LSU. And while an undefeated spring (including a victory over Memphis, who we’ll get to later in the post) boosted the Rebels’ record heading into Selection Monday, it’s hard to walk around their 2-5 record in SEC West divisional play.

What’s more, Georgia’s slow downfall to a 5-7-3 overall record and first round SEC tournament defeat ensured that the Bulldogs wouldn’t even qualify as a ranked or tournament caliber win by selection time. Compared to Wisconsin, this leaves them with a lower conference winning percentage of .500 (though attained in a harder conference than Wisconsin’s .607), the same amount of tournament team wins (two)*, and slightly fewer votes in the final coaches poll (19 to 26)

*for the sake of this article I won’t be considering the Badgers win over Iowa in the season’s opener to be a third tournament team win, given that the Hawkeyes took home the more important matchup in the final. Wisconsin’s two wins are their regular season and semi-final defeat of Rutgers.

The second team to compare is Memphis. The Tigers made the dance as an at-large from the AAC, joining USF, as the second team from the conference to head to Cary, N.C. Their in-conference resume is pretty clear cut- they posted a near perfect slate in regular season play (though they were derailed by a loss to aforementioned top dogs in USF), before they seemed to hurt their stock with a rough conference tournament semi-final exit against a 5-5-1 Cincinnati team.

Out of conference, the picture gets a little more muddy. The Tigers scheduled two SEC games to bolster their resume- which they promptly split with one win and one loss. They fell 3-1 to the aforementioned Ole Miss Rebels, before scoring an upset over then-No. 6 Vanderbilt 3-2 in overtime. It’s hard to say these extra games were ill advised because they bolstered their strength of schedule and proved Memphis could hang with some of the top teams in one of the best conferences in the country.

But I can’t say I don’t have some reservations about the total value of beating a Vanderbilt team that had only played one non-exhibition match to that point all spring and was about three months (and one season) removed from their title-winning form. Overall Memphis finished with a near perfect conference winning percentage (though in a weaker conference than the Big Ten), one fewer win over tournament teams (one), and an impressive No. 21 ranking in the coaches poll (compared to Wisconsin’s status in the “also receiving votes section”).

The third squad to make it off the bubble over the Badgers was Colorado. Hailing out of the PAC-12, the Buffaloes enjoyed a roller coaster of a road to Cary. Their difficult in-conference schedule was marked by good wins and bad losses alike. Though the Buffs felled top opponents like second-placed USC, fellow-bubble team Arizona State (more on the Sun Devils later), and even then-ranked California, they also lost to conference basement dwellers Oregon State and lowly Washington State (one of only two wins either side would pick up in conference).

Making matters more complicated, victories over Cal and Stanford that were once thought to be major resume-boosters slowly turned inconsequential as the two Bay Area schools each fell out of the tournament field (with Cal even dropping as far as second to last in the conference). Using the same summary comparison as before, CU stacks up against the Badgers relatively fairly, posting a slightly lower conference winning percentage of .545 (in a harder conference), the same amount of wins over tournament teams (two), and fewer votes in the final coaches poll (seven to 26).

The final bubble team to make the cut above Wisconsin was Arizona State. Similar to their PAC-12 compatriots in the Rockies, the Sun Devils had a wild ride in conference play. They bolstered their resume with a strong early win against USC, and became the only team so far this year to take down UCLA, but ended the season on a three game skid that included defeats to three-win Utah and bubble rival Colorado.

As with the other teams, they match up relatively evenly with the Badgers, posting a marginally lower conference winning percentage of .600 (in a harder conference, as with Colorado), the same amount of wins over tournament teams (two, as well as one draw), and fewer votes in the final coaches poll (11 to 26).

So where do these resume reviews leave us?

All four of these teams stack up about the same as Wisconsin, with, in my opinion, Ole Miss being the odd team out scoring lower or equal to the Badgers in each of the three categories looked at. But there are many more categories, and none make the difference between these teams and Bucky any more clear than RPI.

RPI (Rating Percentage Index) is a mathematically based ranking that judges teams on their winning percentage (given a weight of 25%), their opponents winning percentage (given a weight of 50%), and their opponents’ opponents winning percentage (given a weight of 25%). And, simply put, RPI does not like the Badgers. Wisconsin clocks in at No. 89 in its ranking, a long distance behind Ole Miss (19), Memphis (32), Colorado (35) and Arizona State (67).

RPI does not like the Big Ten either- the conference’s regular season champion Penn State (who as mentioned before peaked at number four in the coaches poll) clocks in at No. 42 in the rankings, with second and third place Ohio State and Rutgers pacing at No. 75 and No. 77 respectively. The conference’s new COVID-related policy of all regular season games staying in-conference seemed to hurt its ranking compared to teams elsewhere who scheduled games that tested them against top opposition in other regions.

This is not to say RPI is not a useful metric, it can be, but this season certain flaws of the index were highlighted. For example Monmouth, who went 5-1-3 in the MAAC and lost in the conference final, is still rated as the No. 15 best team in the country. Furman, who went undefeated in the Southern Conference but didn’t play a single Power Five opponent, is No. 10.

The committee explicitly said in the introduction to the bracket that they didn’t intend to utilize RPI heavily in their selection. Committee Chair Cliff Douglas mentioned that it would be a “limited tool” due to the lack of non-conference opportunities for teams in conferences like the Big Ten and that they would rely on regional advisory committees in their selection. Such a statement is backed up by the fact that aforementioned high ranked mid-majors like Monmouth, who didn’t earn the MAAC automatic bid, did not make it into the tournament as an at-large. But looking at Wisconsin’s resume compared the bubble teams they were beaten out by, as well as the low seeding of a team like Penn State that scored so highly in all other aspects of the paper and eye test, it’s difficult to conclude that the metric wasn’t given weight in the selection room.

So it appears three scenarios are possible- the committee either sought to punish the Big Ten as a result of Iowa’s unquestionably impressive Cinderella run, never considered the Big Ten a strong conference in the first place and saw Iowa’s tournament victory as confirmation of their analysis, or used a tool that they themselves admitted was limited given the circumstances.

Personally, in my incredibly biased and subjective view, all three of those options are flawed. Best us Badger fans can do now is stomach our rivalry pride and hope that the Big Ten teams that did get the nod can prove any concerns about the conference strength from computers or committee alike wrong in North Carolina. I invite anyone who wishes to be an honorary New Jersey citizen to join me as a fan of Rutgers, but any Big Ten other team you so please is also a disgustingly fair choice as the four teams heading to Cary look to earn the conference some respect.