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Weak schedule clouds NCAA prospects

<p>Head coach C. Vivian Stringer said she believes the Knights are deserving of a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Rutgers tallied the most wins (22) since its 2007-08 season.</p>

Head coach C. Vivian Stringer said she believes the Knights are deserving of a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Rutgers tallied the most wins (22) since its 2007-08 season.

For the first time in a long time, the Rutgers women’s basketball team awaits its NCAA postseason fate without much clarity.

After another dreary loss to No. 1 Connecticut bounced the Scarlet Knights from the AAC Tournament semifinals Sunday, Rutgers officially relies on one of 32 at-large bids to make the 64-team NCAA field determined next Monday.

The other 32 teams are conference tournament champions.

“I believe that we should be [in], but it doesn’t really matter what I think a whole heck of a lot,” said head coach C. Vivian Stringer postgame Sunday. “It depends on what the committee thinks, but it is an uncomfortable situation because we don’t know. We really don’t know.”

In most of Stringer’s previous 18 years at the helm, Rutgers’ admittance was not in question. It was just a matter of how high the selection committee seeded the Knights.

Last season, Rutgers knew its mediocre 16-14 mark was almost certainly going to snap its streak of 10-straight tournament appearances.

But this season is an entirely different story.

Playing in a new top-heavy conference largely seen as UConn, No. 3 Louisville and everyone else, Rutgers (22-9) lacks a standout resume.

The Knights have only one win against the RPI top 40 — statistical rankings based on a team’s wins, losses and strength of schedule — and are 1-6 overall against opponents that have been in AP Top 25 poll.

While five of those losses understandably came to juggernauts in the Huskies and Cardinals, playing a weak nonconference schedule did the Knights no favors from a selection standpoint.

For the most part, Rutgers took care of business in its 11-game nonconference tilt, losing just twice by a combined five points. The second loss came against then-No. 15 LSU at a neutral site.

The problem, though, is only three of those 11 teams have a top-150 RPI.

Stringer’s soft schedule helped a talented young Rutgers team build confidence and rattle off the program’s most wins since the 2007-2008 season, but with a small sample against top opponents, the selection committee could have a hard time distinguishing how good the Knights really are.

Another factor to consider is the ambiguity of the at-large selections.

Prior to this week, Rutgers ranked No. 24 in the AP Poll three consecutive weeks, but AP writers have no bearing on the NCAAs. The tournament committee is comprised of athletic directors and conference commissioners who have curiously snubbed ranked teams before.

Writers and pundits sometimes go by eye tests on teams, while the selection committee puts a stronger emphasis on strength of schedule, quality wins and RPI.

Rutgers’ No. 58 RPI suggests it is one of the best 64 teams in the country, though many of the automatic bids end up going to low-RPI teams from mid-major conferences.

ESPN Bracketologist Charlie Creme attempts to project the field based on the committee’s criteria.

Up until this week, he had predicted Rutgers to make the tournament as a borderline “bubble” team in the range of a 6-11 seed. Then after Fordham upset Dayton on Sunday to win the Atlantic 10, Creme moved Rutgers down to one of his “First Four Out.”

It does not help the Knights’ case that South Florida is also one of his “First Four Out.”

After Creme wrote Feb. 24 on ESPN.com that Rutgers would be “extremely vulnerable” to missing the field with another upset loss, the Knights lost at home a week later to USF to fall to fourth in the AAC.

The Bulls have come on strong of late as winners of eight of their last 10 games — their only losses were to UConn and Sunday by just four points to Louisville in the AAC semis.

So based on Creme’s projections, if another team slips out of the picture, USF would likely get the nod before Rutgers.

Still, the committee will have the final say next Monday, with Rutgers’ chances of making the NCAA Tournament perhaps no better than a coin flip at this point.

“If we have an opportunity to show our talents this year, that will be great,” Stringer said, “and if not, we will be that much more determined through the summer and this group will come back with that much more resolve.”

For updates on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, follow Greg Johnson on Twitter @GregJohnsonRU. For general Rutgers sports updates, follow @TargumSports.

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