With a thrilling double-overtime win at Marietta on Saturday, the 24th-ranked ONU women’s basketball team clinched their fourth straight OAC regular season championship. Now, they must pivot quickly to the OAC Tournament, which will likely pose as a ‘must-win’ situation for the Polar Bears.

Despite their 21-4 overall record, national ranking and regular season conference title, Ohio Northern will likely need to win the OAC Tournament this week — or at least make it to the championship game — to qualify for their third straight NCAA Tournament.

“I think we probably have to win two games for sure,” head coach Michele Durand said on Monday. “I think if we don’t win Tuesday, we won’t get in. And I’d think that we’d have to win Thursday as well. That’s my feeling.”

D3hoops.com Great Lakes Region analyst Joe Sager agreed with Durand, but took it one step further. He believes that ONU will need to win their conference tournament, thereby earning an automatic bid, in order to get into the NCAA Tournament.

Ohio Northern, the top seed in this year’s OAC Tournament, will host Wilmington in the quarterfinals on Tuesday night. It will potentially be the first of three must-win games for the Polar Bears this week, who are nationally ranked but fighting for their tournament lives. Why are their Big Dance aspirations hanging in the balance?

The selection process

While Ohio Northern is ranked 24th in the nation, that doesn’t guarantee that they will be one of the 64 teams announced on next Monday’s selection show.

In Div. III women’s basketball, there are 43 automatic bids. The 43 conference tournament champions make up ‘Pool A.’ The independent schools or members of conferences that do not have an automatic bid make up ‘Pool B,’ and only one school is selected from this pool by the NCAA Tournament selection committee due to the size of the pool. The other 20 teams are selected from ‘Pool C,’ which is comprised of all schools from conferences with automatic bids that have not won their conference tournament. Teams selected from Pool C are known as ‘at-large’ bids.

The national committee determines who will fill the 20 at-large spots. They take recommendations, however, from each regional advisory committee (there are eight regions) on which teams might be most suited to earn a bid from each region.

As a member of the Great Lakes Region advisory committee, Durand said that there is little subjectivity to the regional recommendation process. The committee will largely compare the teams by numbers, with some of the big ones being win-loss percentage and strength of schedule.

And for Ohio Northern, ‘strength of schedule’ won’t likely be considered a strength heading into the recommendation process.

ONU’s strength of schedule ranks 251st in the nation (of 444 Div. III schools) according to d3hoops.com. They have the worst strength of schedule ranking of any OAC school by far, as ninth-place Otterbein is 192nd. On average, ONU’s opponents have won only 48 percent of their games, and their opponents’ opponents have won just 52 percent of their games.

In their seven non-conference games this season, ONU played three teams who finished last in their respective conferences. Their best non-conference win came against Hanover, who won 17 games and finished fourth in the HCAC.

Northern’s OAC slate didn’t help, either. Besides ONU and Marietta (who bounced in and out of the top 25 poll and is currently unranked), no one from the conference came close to reaching the national poll this winter. And even then, Ohio Northern still lost three conference games — including one against John Carroll, who finished seventh in the conference.

ONU’s strength of schedule (or lack thereof) won’t help them when being compared to others within their region. Of the nine teams listed in last week’s d3hoops.com regional rankings (where ONU placed eighth), the only team with a worse strength of schedule rating was ninth-ranked Washington and Jefferson.

Ohio Northern also competes in one of the most competitive regions in the country, as it holds four of the nation’s top seven teams. This means that the other metric Durand mentioned, win-loss percentage, likely won’t play in Northern’s favor either. Unlike last year, when the Polar Bears went 25-0 in the regular season (which made up for a similarly weak resume), the team lost four games this year, putting them near the bottom of the region’s top nine in win-loss percentage as well.

Given these deficiencies in ONU’s resume, it’s easy to see why they might need to win at least two conference tournament games this week — if not all three — to qualify for an NCAA bid.

The odds that they can do it

The good news for ONU is that, despite the fact that their season will likely hinge on their performance in this week’s tournament, they have already won 21 games this season. They have beat the toughest team on their schedule, Marietta (21-4), twice. And as conference champions, they will be the top seed in this week’s OAC Tournament. That means that they will get home court advantage for every game, as long as they keep winning.

Wins have been harder to come by recently, however, for the Polar Bears.

After winning 20 of their first 22 games, Northern has dropped two of their last three. They fell to John Carroll and Otterbein before beating Marietta in double overtime last week. Turnover issues have been compounded by poor shooting and a lack of scoring balance, which has been a trademark of ONU’s offense over the past decade.

From last week: How ONU’s turnover problem has kept them from perfection

Durand hopes that Saturday’s hard-earned victory will stem the tide, though, and set Northern back on track.

“We didn’t play great against Otterbein or John Carroll, I think we were pretty tight and nervous for some reason. But I think Saturday was a really good confidence-builder,” Durand said. “I mean, Marietta is exceptional. The game was great, it could’ve went either way. So I think the fact that we were able to do it on their court, with a huge crowd, hopefully will give us some confidence.”

Ohio Northern will need to collect themselves quickly as they head into the OAC Tournament on Tuesday night. They will face a Wilmington team whom they beat by 21 and 23 points respectively earlier this season. Then again, ONU beat John Carroll by 38 and Otterbein by 24 before losing to both in their second round of conference play.

Durand said Monday that regular season results go out the window once the conference tournament starts.

“It’s a new ball game this week. Tournament time is way different from playing a regular season game,” Durand said. “Everybody plays it differently.”

For Ohio Northern, this week’s conference tournament is an opportunity — not only to start anew, but also to prove to the national selection committee that they are worth consideration.

What’s more, ONU’s senior class needs just three more wins to become the winningest in program history. They might need all three this week to keep their tournament hopes — and college careers — alive.

To watch Tuesday’s quarterfinal game, click here. To listen to the game on SportsBeat 94.9 FM, click here. For all OAC Tournament coverage, click here.

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