William & Mary Still Searching For First NCAA Tournament Bid
Amid opt-outs and athletic department chaos, the William & Mary Tribe will try to make it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history
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The College of William & Mary loves touting its longevity. The campus is directly adjacent to Colonial Williamsburg, a theme park portraying the 18th century Virginia capital. The number “1693” is plastered all over campus and school merchandise to commemorate the year of the college’s founding. Within the school’s tiny footprint, there are multiple statues of Thomas Jefferson, the college’s most renowned graduate. Yet, there is one longstanding tradition that the school doesn’t like to mention: William & Mary basketball, men or women, has never played in the NCAA tournament.
In March 2020, the Tribe looked like they might just change that. William & Mary women’s team rolled to a school-record 21 wins as sophomore guard Eva Hodgson put up one of the best seasons in school history. After winning eight of their last 10 games in the regular season, they entered the Colonial Athletic Association tournament as the No. 3 seed and felt great about their chances at a championship.
“We actually had a shootaround the day of our game [on March 12] against Delaware, and everyone on the team felt amazing,” senior forward Bailey Eichner told Her Hoop Stats. “We really felt like we wanted to make a run in the tournament. But then when we got back from shootaround, we got a text saying to come down [to a meeting room] and we kind of knew what was going to happen.”
We all know what happened next as well. Due to COVID-19, conference tournaments and the NCAA Tournament were canceled as the world seemingly came to a stand-still. William & Mary’s hopes of going where no William & Mary team has ever gone before were dashed. The Tribe joined the rest of the country in picking up the pieces and moving forward.
What makes William & Mary’s situation unique and, I submit, interesting, is what has happened since March 12, 2020.
First and foremost, Hodgson and senior reserve Libby Underwood opted out. Both players cited the risk of contracting or transmitting COVID-19 in their statements about opting out. It’s hard to overstate how much Hodgson meant to the team last season. She was the only player in the country to join the 50-40-90 club in 2020 and ranked eighth in Division I in scoring with 20.7 points per game. Hodgson had the highest usage rate on the team at 27.6%, which ranked in the 93rd percentile nationally. After stressing that he respects Hodgson’s and Underwood’s decisions to opt out, head coach Ed Swanson didn’t try to sugarcoat the impact of those decisions.
“You don’t [replace those players]. You’re just different,” said Swanson, who is entering his 31st year as a college head coach and his eighth at William & Mary. “We lost a player [in Hodgson] who could probably be a preseason player of the year in the conference. I'm not going to sit here and lie to you and say that we can replace that easily. We need different players to step up.”
Swanson, who coached at Sacred Heart for 23 years and brought the program to its first ever NCAA Tournament appearance in 2006, went on to list almost every player on the roster as a player who can improve. Bre Bellamy, who earned a CAA All-Rookie team selection last year, and Sydney Wagner, a preseason All-CAA honorable mention, seem to be the most likely candidates to make a leap. But the idea is that every player can make incremental improvements to replace the lost production. Eichner sees it as a big opportunity for the team and the program going forward.
“[The opt-outs are] going to create so much opportunity for a lot of people to step up and it's going to create a lot of opportunity for underclassmen, who need to fill those roles,” said Eichner, who ranked in the 99th percentile nationally for rebounding rate last season. “I think it's going to set [the underclassmen] up for the future. They're going to have the playing time and the experience to kind of guide the people under them.”
The second major shakeup at William & Mary had nothing to do with the women’s basketball team, at least not directly. In September, the athletic department decided to cut seven sports (men’s and women’s gymnastics, men’s and women’s swimming, men’s indoor and outdoor track and field, and volleyball) due to financial concerns allegedly brought on by the pandemic. Many schools around the country had to make similar cuts in their athletic departments.
But what happened next was unique to William & Mary. The student-athletes, alumni, faculty and surrounding community revolted against the cuts. They raised many issues, including claims that these cuts were made to bolster athletic director Samantha Huge’s hope of having nationally competitive programs in the high-revenue sports of football, men’s basketball, and women’s basketball. The community response resulted in Huge resigning, a temporary reversal of the cuts, and a promise to reexamine the athletic department’s goals.
“I think it says a lot about our student-athletes, just the resilience of them, and the amount of support that they've gotten from alumni and professors,” said Eichner. “They were not going to go down without a fight. As a student-athlete, I have friends on these teams, so I completely support what they've been doing because I would be doing the same thing if my sport was cut.”
Swanson hopes that the whole saga brings the athletic department closer together. But he and his team likely play a big part in making sure that happens. With the football team not playing until March and men’s basketball seemingly headed for a rebuilding year, the women’s basketball program has a great opportunity in 2020. If it can win the CAA and get to the NCAA Tournament, the team can validate the community’s arguments that the Tribe can both compete nationally and support 23 varsity sports.
According to Eichner, the team had a very rigorous workout program in the summer and that she feels the team hasn’t missed a beat. Despite the opt-outs and the graduation of second-leading scorer Victoria Reynolds, Swanson believes the same.
“[During this pandemic,] I thought the team did an excellent job of improving and continuing that upward climb,” said Swanson. “I think that this team is hungry.”
Winning the CAA won’t be easy with James Madison, Drexel and Towson all looking very strong. William & Mary will also have to defy expectations, as the CAA coaches picked them to finish seventh in the conference. But the Tribe were in the exact same position entering last season and know what to do when people count them out.
“Coach Swanson takes it personally, and he instilled that attitude in us. So we take it personally, too,” Eichner said. “A lot of people try to overlook William & Mary. But we have a good basketball team. We know if we can keep performing at a high level this year, it'll be a good year for us.”
Eichner said that the team has talked about a CAA title and that it is a goal for them. The journey to the program’s first NCAA Tournament starts on December 3 against Old Dominion. Swanson takes a different route in terms of expectations. He just wants the team to work as hard as they can everyday.
“Throughout my 30-year career as coach, I don't talk about championships and all that sort of stuff. I think that everything gets too clouded if you start talking about championships,” said Swanson. “I've always told my teams to give me first place or give me last place, but give it to me!”