During a retreat in late August, George Washington women's basketball coach Joe McKeown pulled his assistants out of the office and away from the usual distractions for a frank discussion about the upcoming season. He wanted their thoughts on a variety of topics, not the least of which was the NCAA tournament.
Making the NCAA tournament usually isn't a problem for GW. Last season, the Colonials made their fourth consecutive appearance and 13th in McKeown's 17-year tenure. At issue was getting out of the first weekend. In seven NCAA appearances since 1997, the Colonials never have made it past the second round and have been eliminated in the first round twice.
"One of the things we walked about [was], no matter how we've got to do it, we've got to win in March," McKeown said. "We've got to win the second round of the NCAA tournament. . . . Even if that means beating a great team on their home court, then we've got to figure out a way to do it instead of complaining about why did we get seeded here. I think that's our mentality this year."
Entering the Atlantic 10 tournament, which opens today in Cincinnati, GW (25-2) has compiled a gaudy résumé. The Colonials boast an 18-game winning streak, an undefeated conference record, a No. 8 ranking in the Associated Press poll and a No. 9 ranking in the Rating Percentage Index. But those accomplishments may be overlooked by the NCAA tournament selection committee if GW fails to win the conference tournament title.
It's not hard to figure out why GW has had such problems advancing past the NCAA tournament's second round. Despite eight consecutive 20-win seasons, the Colonials have not been seeded better than No. 7 since 1997. That year, they were seeded fifth and reached the East Region final. Last year as a No. 7 seed, GW faced second-seeded Tennessee in the second round and lost, 66-53. The only other year the Colonials made it out of the second round was 1995, when they were a No. 4 seed, their best ever.
That's not an anomaly. The power in women's basketball remains concentrated in a few top teams, and avoiding them in the tournament is critical. A No. 6 seed likely will face a No. 3 seed in the second round, whereas a No. 4 seed cannot face a higher seed until the tournament's second weekend. Since the women's tournament began in 1982, No. 4 seeds are a combined 58-30 in the second round, while No. 6 seeds are 16-50.
An impressive regular season record hasn't been enough for the Colonials to merit a good seed in the past because they play in what has been considered a weak league. Although the Atlantic 10 is stronger than it has been in recent years, the conference ranks 10th in the most recent RPI -- below the Colonial Athletic Association, Mountain West and Sun Belt.
To counter the drag created by the league, McKeown puts together a rigorous nonconference schedule every season. The Colonials usually take their lumps early in the season against tough competition, then sail through the Atlantic 10. This season, GW emerged from the early-season test with impressive wins over No. 10 Georgia, Auburn, Texas Christian and James Madison. The Colonials' only losses were to teams ranked in the top 10: No. 6 Maryland and No. 2 Tennessee.
Even winning the Atlantic 10 tournament has not guaranteed GW a good seed. In 2003, the Colonials claimed the tournament title, only to be seeded No. 7. They went on to lose to second-seeded Villanova in the second round.
"You want to be rewarded for doing what they say you should do: Go out and play a national schedule. Go out and beat people. Go out and play the best of the best," McKeown said. "We've done that. You would hope that if you followed their guidelines, you want to be rewarded."
GW likely will be rewarded with a good seed this year. One prognosticator has the Colonials seeded second in a mock bracket. That could change dramatically, however, if GW stumbles in the Atlantic 10 tournament -- a competition that has given the Colonials fits in the past. Despite its 12 regular season championships, GW has only four tournament titles and none since 2003. The Colonials would like nothing more than to end that streak of futility.
"The main focus is winning the tournament because we haven't been able to do that," senior Kenan Cole said. "That will help the [NCAA tournament] seeding as a byproduct of that, but that's not really the focus going into it. . . . It's to win the championship for the championship."