Horizon League contenders hope to be at-large and in charge

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Kevin Borseth probably knows a little bit more than most about life as a mid-major, given that he’s spent 19 of his 69 years as the coach of Green Bay’s women’s basketball team, in addition to stints at the Division II and junior college levels near the beginning of his career.

However, after winning conference tournament championships and NCAA Tournament automatic bids in 12 of the first 14 of those years with the Phoenix, he’s experienced something novel over the last five: the hard reality of being a very good mid-major program that happens to lose the wrong game at the end of the season. Three of those five defeats were in conference championship games, meaning that teams one step away from a line on a March Madness bracket instead ended up vying for impressive-but-hollow wins against other good teams in the WNIT.

Last season was particularly excruciating for the Phoenix, which put together solid non-conference results, including a win over an improving Wisconsin program, to lead the Horizon League in the NET rankings for most of the year. UWGB overcame more than its share of personnel issues – perhaps most notably, the departure of Hailey Oskey and an injury to Maddy Schreiber – to own a 27-4 overall record at one point, including a sweep of Cleveland State that helped clinch the Horizon League’s regular season title with an 18-2 conference record.

And yet, when 27-4 became 27-5 with a loss to the Vikings in the HL championship game, Green Bay knew that its shot at the NCAA Tournament was over.

“I thought we had a good year, all things considered,” Borseth said at the conference’s media day on Wednesday. “We lost three of our starters down the stretch, we limped into the postseason with players that were hurt. I was really proud of the way our kids responded, keeping in mind that there’s good teams in our league, and we’ve gotta be healthy, we’ve gotta play together, and of course, we have to come together on that specific day against the teams we play.”

“Winning every game just isn’t going to happen.”

Borseth’s adversary, CSU’s Chris Kielsmeier, won that heavily-weighted game on March 7th, but he hasn’t been so lucky on other occasions. The Vikings, as he likes to point out, are the only Horizon League team to make it to Indianapolis for the conference tournament’s semifinals each season since they moved to the Circle City in 2020. However, until 2023, there was always someone else in the way, like an Angel Baker-led Wright State or Macee Williams’ IUPUI teams, and a defeated CSU usually had to head down to Kentucky to play for consolation trophies in the WBI.

There’s an obvious question worth considering: what if losing in the conference tournament didn’t have to be the end of an otherwise-great team’s NCAA Tournament hopes?

Kayla (Tetschlag) Karius was part of the Horizon League’s last NCAA Tournament at-large selection, Green Bay’s 2009-10 team

It’s not an entirely unprecedented idea. In 2010, Cleveland State superstar Kailey Klein bucketed 28 of her 2,140 career points to lead the Vikings to an 83-75 overtime shocker over Green Bay in the HL semifinals and snap the Phoenix’s 27-game winning streak at their home Kress Center, the location of that season’s tournament. CSU then went on to win the title against Butler two days later and gain the associated NCAA bid. Green Bay, which boasted results against Wisconsin, DePaul, and Northern Iowa among its 29 wins, was also selected to the dance – and even upset Virginia in the first round to prove that the rare outcome was not an error.

Arguably, had someone managed to upset Green Bay during the conference tournament in subsequent seasons, the same scenario could have played out; after all, the Phoenix had the selection capital to collect five single-digit NCAA Tournament seeds as the Horizon League’s champion between 2011 and 2018, certainly enough to withstand a hypothetical defeat in the conference tournament and still be chosen.

So can a team like Green Bay or Cleveland State get back to that point? As it turns out, that obvious question has an obvious answer: teams hoping to earn an at-large bid have to schedule tough games, and they have to win most of those games.

“How do you get an at-large bid to the tournament? Well, we play Maryland, and we play Washington State in an MTE,” Borseth said, while rattling off a couple of his team’s high-profile games during the upcoming season. “We’ll find out how we stack up right off the bat. But our non-conference schedule is obviously extremely important, if we’re going to have any opportunity down the road – all of us – to get any postseason consideration.”

“You’ve gotta schedule up, and we’ve done that,” Kielsmeier concurred, after pointing out that the Vikings’ 2023-24 slate might be the toughest in program history. “And I hope that we’ve put ourselves in a position that scheduling up gives us a reason to be in the mix for that. Because scheduling up can cause you to be flipped and in trouble to get to that spot.”

Kielsmeier had an interesting addendum though.

“Look at what the league is doing,” he said. “Look at what [Horizon League commissioner Julie Roe Lach] and her staff are doing. Horizon League basketball is coming after conferences, and we’re making statements.”

The Vikings coach referred to what the HL calls a “brand recharge,” last month’s launch of an updated logo and a renewed emphasis on its four pillars: major cities, major experiences, major moves and major impact.

If it sounds like marketing, that’s because it is, but Roe Lach thinks some of the actions behind that marketing are the sorts of things that can raise the profile of the whole conference in a meaningful way, and put the HL’s member teams in a position to gain national attention.

“We’ve got to have a strong tournament, and we’re doing that,” she said. “We’ve got to have great exposure though TV with our ESPN partner, and we’re doing that. We’ve got to have a scheduling strategy, non-league and league, and we’ve changed [the format of] our league schedule this year, we had already done the non-league piece of it, that’s important. We’ve got to invest. We talk about financial dashboards a lot with our presidents and ADs, and they’re stepping up and really investing.”

“There is no silver bullet. However, what we’ve really tried to do is step back and determine what matters most, and how we can systematically and collectively get after it.”

Kielsmeier likely agrees with Roe Lach’s “silver bullet” comment when it comes to matters on the court. After all, it took a decade of winning for Green Bay to gain the sort of credibility that made the Phoenix perennially worthy of an at-large bid in the 2010s, and he understands that there’s work still in front of his own program.

“We’ve gotta go out and win games when it’s time to win games, and give ourselves a chance to get multiple bids,” he said. “I don’t know that we’re there now, but I’m not going to say that we’re not working on it. I’m not going to say that we’re not going to get there at some point.”

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