When the Baylor women’s basketball team was assigned Idaho as the No. 1 vs. No. 16 matchup in the Dallas Regional of the NCAA tournament, there was little to question. After all, the Lady Bears had done everything required to claim the top seed — finish with a 33-1 record and dominate the Big 12 Conference in the regular season and tournament.
But Idaho felt a little disrespected. Not because it was paired with the heavily-favored Baylor. But because it was picked for the region tournament as a No. 16 seed.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, and a lot of coaches around the country that texted me or called me after that show came on and said, ‘Man, you got screwed,’ ” said Vandals head coach Jon Newlee, whose team is in the tournament for third time in four years. “And you know, I have to agree with them. I just think that it’s tough. It’s tough for these kids. It’s tough for my team to go down this road.
“It’s been a program in the making and now here we are in our fourth year with these seniors that have been here now going into their third NCAA tournament game, and to get that kind of seeding was shocking to me.”
Idaho enters Friday’s game against Baylor with a 24-9 record, having finished third in the Big Sky at 13-5. The Vandals then won their league tournament, which earned them the automatic berth.
Idaho’s RPI of 123 ranks tops among the four No. 16 seeds in the tournament and is more comparable with the No. 15 seeds, such as Troy’s RPI of 119.
“The committee doesn’t have to answer to anybody,” Newlee said. “They just don’t have to answer to anybody. That’s them. They do what they want when they want.
“I know on the men’s side there’s been a bunch of uproar over the same type of thing from all the people that feel like they didn’t get what they wanted. Again, the committee does what the committee does, and we’ve just got to roll with it, and we’re out here to play.”
That could make Idaho a tougher first-round customer than expected. The Vandals leads the Big Sky in 3-pointers with a .371 percentage on 920 attempts. They also average a league-best 42.6 rebounds per game.
Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey says Idaho is not a team to overlook.
“They are better than a 16 seed,” Mulkey said. “I thought we would see the Southland Conference or the SWAC just take a bus and come over here — certainly would have saved them some money. But Jon Newlee is exactly right. We played his team last year and they are good.”
What didn’t help Idaho was a lack of a major quality win. The Vandals defeated Iowa State, 97-65, on Nov. 28 in Cancun, Mexico. But it was an off year for the Cyclones, who finished under .500 and are missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006.
Idaho lost both of its matchups with ranked opponents — then-No. 15 Duke on Nov. 26 (74-68) and current No. 6 Oregon State on Dec. 12 (69-44).
With its placement in the tournament, history is not on its side. Only one No. 16 seed has taken down a No. 1 seed since the NCAA took over the bracket in 1982. It happened in 1998, when Harvard upset Stanford.
But that won’t stop Newlee’s team from trying.
“I do try to schedule Top 20 teams every year, if we can, get out there and play those type of teams, just for this moment,” he said. “To be able to get in a place like this and stay calm, and they’ll understand we’re here to play basketball and not worry about the name on the chest or the banners up above the building.”