No love for the MWC

By By Natalie Dicou and By Natalie Dicou

By Natalie Dicou

Updated 3/17 @ 11:14 p.m.College basketball players often jump out of their seats and jubilantly hug everyone in sight when they learn where they’re headed in the NCAA tournament.

The U women’s basketball team, however, responded with silence when it learned Monday afternoon that it was assigned a No. 8 seed and is headed to West Lafayette, Ind., to take on ninth-seeded Purdue on the Boilermakers’ home court Sunday in the tournament’s opening round.

“I think we were all shocked,” said MWC Player of the Year Leilani Mitchell. “I don’t think any of us even thought we’d be in that region so we weren’t really paying too much attention to the screen and then, you know, they said our name and we were all just really quiet.”

Going into the Mountain West Conference tournament last week, the then-12th ranked Utes (27-4) were on a 22-game winning streak and had just finished up a 16-0 regular season. The Utes were poised to enter the Big Dance as a higher seed, and were projected to be a No. 4. Optimists were thinking a third seed wasn’t out of the question.

But after Utah inexplicably fell to Colorado State (4-27), which had just finished a pitiable 0-16 regular season campaign, the Utes dropped to No. 18 in the rankings, and their tournament seeding took a huge hit.

“I don’t understand why we even dropped that far with a loss,” said first-team all-MWC guard Morgan Warburton. “It’s just how it goes. It’s set in stone now. We’ve just got to play.”

Mitchell didn’t expect the CSU loss to be nearly as detrimental to Utah’s seeding as it was.

“It was one game,” Mitchell said. “We’ve done a good job all throughout the year and you know, that’s what it’s all supposed to be based on, you know, the whole season.”

The Utes’ seeding is more evidence that the selection committee has little respect for the MWC. The Utes ran the table in a league that features such programs as Wyoming, TCU and New Mexico-two of which made it to the NCAA tournament-and still the Utes received the snub.

“That’s what was really the most surprising,” Mitchell said, “expecting to be a three or a four, all the way down to an eight.”

An extended tournament run will be incredibly difficult. If Utah manages to get past Purdue, the Utes will likely go head-to-head with one of the most feared programs in women’s college basketball. Utah’s second round opponent will likely be top-seeded Tennessee. The Volunteers are defending national champs, and suit up Candace Parker, arguably the best player in the country. Vols head coach Pat Summit is the winningest coach in college basketball-including both men’s and women’s-and has coached Tennessee to seven national titles.

“You dream about playing those types of teams,” Mitchell said. “I think it’d just be good challenge. It’ll be exciting. You know, anything can happen- we learned that the hard way last week.”According to Mitchell and Warburton, the Utes have bounced back from the debacle in Las Vegas.

“The coaches gave us four days off to kind of relax and rest up and I think that was really good for us mentally,” Mitchell said, “Just to be able to, you know, get away from basketball and just kind of think about that game too, and use it as motivation.”

The Utes are disappointed but are moving forward and getting ready to focus on Purdue and perhaps Tennessee.

“Now that we know who we’re going to play and we can actually prepare for a team, that is when we’re at our best,” Warburton said.

The other two MWC teams will also get a chance to make some noise in the tournament. No. 11 seeded Wyoming also made the cut and will go up against sixth-seeded Pittsburgh. MWC tournament champ New Mexico earned the league’s automatic bid, receiving a No. 12 seed. The Lobos will try their luck against fifth-seeded West Virginia.

n.dico[email protected]