NCAA field sets VU's Balcomb on path toward her past

Monday, March 15, 2010 at 9:00pm

Melanie Balcomb realized almost instantly that her past and her future were placed firmly on a collision course Monday when the field for the 2010 NCAA women’s basketball tournament was announced.

Vanderbilt’s coach stressed that her typical approach is an all-consuming focus on her team’s first-round opponent. In this case, the Commodores (22-10), the No. 6 seed in the Sacramento Region, were matched against DePaul (21-11), the 11th seed.

Even so, Balcomb could not ignore the fact that if VU wins that first-round contest, which tips off 11:10 a.m. (CDT) Sunday, it most likely second-round opponent will be No. 3 seed Xavier (27-3 and ranked fifth in the latest Associated Press poll), where she was head coach for seven years before she came to Nashville. That point further was driven home by the fact that those games will take place at the Cintas Center on the campus of Xavier University.

“That’s one of those things – it’s always tough for a coach to go back,” Balcomb said. “Xavier is playing as good as anybody in the country right now. But I don’t want to look past anybody. I don’t want to even talk about anybody but the opponent we’re going to face.”

Tennessee was named the top seed in the Memphis Region and presented with an opportunity to make it to the Final Four without every leaving the state. The Lady Vols (30-2) will play the first and second rounds at Thompson-Boling Arena, beginning 11:16 a.m. Saturday against Austin Peay (15-17). Provided they get that far, their regional semifinal and final games will be held in Memphis.

Middle Tennessee State (25-5) was entered as the No. 10 seed in the Dayton Region and was faced with an SEC opponent, Mississippi State (19-12) in a first-round game at Pittsburgh.

Vanderbilt is back in the tournament for the 23rd time overall and the 11th in a row, a stretch which includes all eight seasons under Balcomb.

The difference this year from recent ones is the travel demands.

Cincinnati is within driving distance of Middle Tennessee. That’s in stark contrast to the last two years when the Commodores were sent to Albuquerque, N.M. or in 2007 when they went to East Lansing, Mich., for the first two rounds.

“We’ve played on the other side of the country, we’ve played everywhere,” senior Jessica Mooney said. “So it’s great to have somewhere our fans can travel. It’s going to be exciting.”

Not only that, two of VU’s current players, senior Ashlee Bridge and freshman Gabby Smith, are from Cincinnati. Senior Merideth Marsh is from Louisville, which is fewer than two hours away. Junior Jence Rhoads is from Slippery Rock, Pa., about as far to the East as Nashville is to the South.

“We’ve normally played out West, having nobody (in the stands) and changes in elevation and temperature and stuff,” Marsh said. “Now we’re going to Cincinnati. It will be fun. I think we’re ready.”

If Vanderbilt advances beyond the first two rounds, it will have to travel a significant distance – to Sacramento, Calif.

Of course, that’s well far into the future, and Balcomb is loathe to look past Sunday. It’s a given, though, that at some point she’s going to gaze directly into her past.

“I have a lot of friends there, a lot of people who have supported me,” she said. “We do a lot of recruiting up there because of the years that I spent up there.”

This time, she’ll only sty a few days with the hope that she’ll have some more positive memories when she leaves.