The NCAA Tournament is just different

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Cleveland State has more postseason experience than most teams in college basketball, thanks to trips to the Women’s Basketball Invitational in both 2021 and 2022, the first of which resulted in the Vikings’ only postseason tournament championship in program history.

The NCAA Tournament is just different.

To understand that it’s different, you don’t really need to go any further than how the invitations and game assignments function. The WBI, which must wait in line behind both the NCAA Tournament and the WNIT, solicits “if you don’t get picked by another tournament” agreements from teams, before selecting its eight-team field from the pool of passed-over squads.

“It’s really just direct communication with them and their people,” CSU head coach Chris Kielsmeier explained. “You kind of have a sense that you’re getting in before it’s released, but you don’t have any knowledge of who you’re playing or who the other teams are until it’s released on their social media sites.”

One year after pretty much just refreshing Twitter at 11:00 on a Sunday night to learn their postseason fate, the Vikings anticipated the specifics of their NCAA Tournament placement by assembling in the fifth-floor loge at the Wolstein Center with friends, supporters, the Horizon League trophy, and a bevy of green and white cupcakes, while watching ESPN in prime time with the rest of the nation as selection show host Elle Duncan ran down the elite of women’s basketball.

There was South Carolina and already-legendary coach Dawn Staley. There was Maryland, with the Terrapins posed behind 11 conference championship trophies for their live stream segment. There was Indiana and national player of the year finalist Mackenzie Holmes.

There was Horizon League champion Cleveland State, fresh off its first-ever 30-win season, assigned a 13th seed and sent to play fourth-seeded Villanova in suburban Philadelphia on Saturday. There was an ecstatic Deja Williams, front and center on the Worldwide Leader in Sports, backed by her teammates in their Nike bench shirts.

The seconds were fleeting, but they happened: the entire basketball world irised on the Vikings while they took their place on the bracket next to the sport’s blue bloods. Cleveland State Sole, indeed.

Even Kielsmeier, who qualified for nine NCAA Tournaments during his days coaching in Division II and Division III, and owning a couple decades of experience to temper the unexpected, was left at a bit at a loss. The lower divisions enjoy a certain degree of predictability, since they remain truer to regional designations. That’s even more the case in the WBI, which plays its whole tournament at a single site in Kentucky. In Division I version of the NCAA Tournament though, you could abruptly be sent to Los Angeles, Austin, or Knoxville with no firm warning.

“Your name gets popped up just like that, and it’s like ‘wow,’” Kielsmeier said. “We’re going where? It’s hard to describe.”

“It’s a very surreal moment. It’s a moment that every athlete chases, and obviously a few of us get to experience it,” Vikings forward Brittni Moore added. “I’m just grateful that I get to see my team up there.”

There were a few other watch party staples, including a Horizon League tournament highlight video set to “One Shining Moment” before the start of the ESPN broadcast, then a quick thank you from Kielsmeier to the assembled crowd after the Vikings formally took their place in the madness.

There was also an extensive media availability, with Kielsmeier and Destiny Leo supplementing their national hit in front of local affiliate cameras.

“You want your program being talked about, and it’s a really big deal when it’s being talked about by anybody. Doesn’t matter who it is,” Kielsmeier said. “When you get that kind of exposure, you’re a national brand now. That’s a significant step for the program, and one we want to make sure we’re not only feeding off of it this week, but the months and the years moving forward as a program.”

“This can change your program significantly.”

Finally, just six days from the celebration of accomplishments past and future, there will be a basketball game. A very tough basketball game, against a Wildcats team playing in front of their home crowd and led by Maddy Siegrist, the nation’s scoring leader. Villanova has lost only six times this season, and three of those were to Connecticut, the definitive brand name in women’s basketball.

“We just have to make sure that we take advantage of every practice, every opportunity that we have to get ready for Villanova,” Moore said.

“They’ve been top 20 team all year, I think maybe a four seed for them is kind of low,” Kielsmeier opined. “But we’re just excited to continue to be playing. We knew whoever we were going to play was going to be really, really, really good. So we need to have a great week of prep and be confident. We need to go show that we can play with the best.”

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