Early game time? A 1,000-mile flight?
Sign Melanie Balcomb up.
The veteran coach is happy just to lead Vanderbilt into its 14th straight NCAA Tournament. The Commodores are the No. 8 seed and play No. 9 seed St. Joseph’s at 10 a.m. (CDT) Saturday in Storrs, Conn., in the Bridgeport Region. The winner most likely plays No. 1 seed Connecticut on its home floor.
Vanderbilt (20-11) hasn’t played a game before noon all season and this one tips off at 11 a.m. local time. It also marks the first time in four years the Commodores have to board a plane for the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. They hosted the first two rounds at Memorial Gymnasium last year and bused to Cincinnati the previous two years.
They failed to get past the second round each time. In fact, three of the four Sweet 16 appearances under Balcomb have come by flying across country for the first two rounds – in Seattle in 2005 and in Albuquerque in 2008 and 2009.
“You kind of wish you’d be closer but at the same time ... we’ve had more success when we’ve gone to New Mexico and gone further,” Balcomb said. “We’re excited to be in. I feel like we haven’t played our best basketball and we are still getting healthier. So this time off, I think, was an advantage for us. I think our best game is yet to come.”
Balcomb, in her 11th year at Vanderbilt, takes on a familiar foe in St. Joe’s. She played the Hawks on a regular basis while she was in the Atlantic 10 Conference as the coach of Xavier from 1995-02. St. Joe’s coach Cindy Griffin is no stranger to Vanderbilt, either. She served as an assistant coach for the Commodores and Jim Foster from 1993-95.
The Hawks (23-8) finished fifth in the conference but won the league tournament by knocking off Dayton, which beat Vanderbilt earlier in the season, in the semis and Fordham in the championship.
“I’m very familiar with St. Joe’s and their tradition and their success and how well they’re coached by Cindy Griffin,” Balcomb said. “She just is very good defensively. More of a half-court team and they can really spread the floor and shoot the ball well. Their staple has always been their defense — very tough to score against.”
This is the third meeting between the schools. Vanderbilt lost to St. Joe’s in the opening round of the 1989 NCAA Tournament. The Commodores defeated the Hawks 59-46 on Nov. 24, 2009 in Philadelphia. Seniors Tiffany Clarke, Elan Brown and Gabby Smith were playing in just their fourth collegiate game as freshmen and scored two points apiece.
Vanderbilt hasn’t played for nearly two weeks since bowing out to Kentucky in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. But the time off has allowed the Commodores to rest up, especially injured guards Christina Foggie and Kady Schrann.
They’ve also had several early wake-up calls during that stretch. Vanderbilt is used to hitting the court at 10 a.m. for weekend practices. So getting out of bed shouldn’t be a problem.
“I guess I will have to become a morning person on that day,” Brown said smiling. “But basketball is basketball so any time of day is fine by me. We’ve had really good practices. We’ve been building confidence all week. We used to get up at 6 a.m. in the summer. So not quite that early but we’re OK with it. We’re used to it.”
• MTSU heads to Louisville: The Middle Tennessee State women are headed to the NCAA Tournament for a school-record fifth straight year.
The Blue Raiders are the No. 12 seed and open at host and No. 5 seed Louisville in the Oklahoma City Region at 1:30 p.m. (CST) on Sunday.
Middle Tennessee State (25-7) is headed to its 16th NCAA Tournament thanks to grabbing an automatic bid and winning the Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship. MTSU have lost five consecutive tournament games since beating Gonzaga in 2007.
Louisville (24-8) is also making its 16th trip to the Big Dance after finishing tied for third in the Big East Conference. The winner will play either No. 4 seed Purdue or No. 13 Liberty.
“Louisville is a good matchup for us,” coach Rick Insell said. “It is good for our fans. It will be good for our team. It will keep us in our routine for when we travel on the road, and a three-hour drive isn’t bad at all.”
• Belmont goes to WBI: For the first time in six years, the Belmont women will play in a postseason tournament.
The Bruins learned Monday night that they will play in the 16-team Women’s Basketball Invitational. Belmont is the No. 8 seed in the East Region and will play at top seed Detroit at 6 p.m. Thursday.
The Bruins went 18-13, finished third in the Ohio Valley Conference and advanced to the semifinals of the league tournament. Belmont last reached the postseason in 2007 with its first NCAA Tournament appearance in program history.
“We are grateful to the WBI for this opportunity,” third-year coach Brittney Ezell said. “We are thrilled to continue playing this season and count ourselves as fortunate to have the opportunity. Our players are excited for the chance to compete and we are looking forward continuing to better our program in the postseason.”