Commentary

Regionals need neutral sites

One thing clear: We're still looking for the right formula for women's tourney sites

Originally Published: October 10, 2013
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW.com

Skylar DigginsMatt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsNotre Dame, as well as Louisville, Nebraska and Stanford, will host a regional in 2014.

If you feel like we've been through all this before with women's basketball ... we have. More than once.

Wednesday, the NCAA released the early-round and regional sites for the 2014 Division I women's tournament, and as expected, the regionals will be on teams' home courts. That used to be common, before the NCAA went away from it a decade ago with the belief that it hindered the competitive equity of the tournament.

However, sometimes all things old are new again. The NCAA is always looking at how to increase attendance for women's hoops. But for the past year, at least, it seems there has been an increasing mindset of, "How do we make more revenue from the tournament?"

Or to turn that around more pessimistically, "How do we lose less?"

[+] EnlargeJeff Walz and Muffet McGraw
AP Photo/Joe RaymondNeither Louisville's Jeff Walz nor Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw -- whose schools are hosting predetermined regionals in 2014 -- favor the home-court regionals idea.

The regional hosts for 2014 will be Louisville, Notre Dame, Nebraska and Stanford. Those teams will get to play on their home courts -- in the Huskers' case, that's in a brand-new building, Pinnacle Bank Arena, in downtown Lincoln -- if they make the Sweet 16/Elite Eight.

Last month, NCAA officials and former WNBA president Val Ackerman met with college coaches and administrators at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis to discuss several issues at the forefront of the women's college game.

Ackerman had been hired to write a "white paper" that looked at the sport from several different perspectives and offered suggestions on how to increase attendance and popularity, among other things. Her report was released publicly during the summer, at which time the NCAA also had decided that returning the regionals to predetermined home courts was on the table.

Those present at the summit in September voted on recommendations for many issues, which then gave a road map to the NCAA committees that are ultimately responsible for deciding on changes.

But in regard to the home-court regionals idea, it seemingly did not make any difference what the coaches or administrators thought, at least not for 2014. This was going to happen, regardless, for the upcoming season.

Interestingly enough, two of the coaches whose schools are hosting predetermined regionals for this season -- Muffet McGraw of Notre Dame and Jeff Walz of Louisville -- told me at the summit they actually didn't favor the idea.

"I think hosting a regional is in complete opposition to preserving the integrity of the game," McGraw said that day. "I think you can buy your way into the Final Four."

Having the top 16 seeds host the early rounds -- which previously was the format for several years -- makes sense. But the regionals should be on neutral sites.

That said, you can understand why their schools still put in bids, even if their coaches philosophically disagree with the format. Hey, if these are the rules for 2014, then they will follow them for their own best interests.

But is this format really the best thing for women's basketball? Again, we've gone round and round about this for a very long time.

My view on the NCAA women's tournament: Having the top 16 seeds host the early rounds -- which previously was the format for several years -- makes sense. But the regionals should be on neutral sites. Close to a school is OK. But on a school's home court? I'd like to think we should be past that, although I know attendance at regionals can be disappointing at times.

Why am I in favor of returning to the top 16 seeds hosting early rounds? It rewards regular-season excellence: You must earn your seed and chance to host. And it gives the sport the best chance it has at getting good attendance for those games, more so than predetermined sites do.

Too often, predetermined sites for early rounds -- the NCAA's system since 2003 -- have reversed both of those things. It has at times given worse-seeded teams home-court advantage because they had won a bid to host. Or it didn't help attendance at all, because teams that might draw reasonably well for a game held at either institution did not garner enough interest from neutral spectators. Especially if the site was a significant distance from both schools playing.

In a lot of ways, predetermined sites for early rounds always seemed to me the worst of both worlds, although I understood that it made things much easier from a broadcasting perspective.

Top-16 seeds hosting received Ackerman's endorsement and seems likely to happen, maybe even next year.

But the regional-sites issue is different. By the time you're down to 16 survivors, there is generally less separation between them in regard to what they did during the regular season.

Thus, if there's a point in the NCAA tournament where it really feels competitively wrong -- at least at this stage in the development of the women's game -- for teams to have an arbitrary home-court advantage, it's the regional level.

I think hosting a regional is in complete opposition to preserving the integrity of the game.

-- Irish coach Muffet McGraw

Would it be less troublesome if the regionals were on home courts, but those weren't decided until the Sweet 16 was set and the top four seeds still alive in each region then got to host?

From a purely merit-based viewpoint, you could justify that a little better. Again, it would come down to earning their hosting rights based on results in the regular season and the subsequent NCAA seeds they received.

It's still not great, because there surely would be situations in which two teams with very similar résumés had slightly different seeds but vastly different situations to face in the tournament. Still, it would be less odious than having the advantage of playing at home in the regional simply because your school bought that edge for you.

Again, though, regionals on home courts is often how it used to be. There are many, many examples, but one historically prominent instance is 1995, when Connecticut won its first NCAA championship. The Huskies had the early rounds at Gampel Pavilion and then hosted a regional that year, too, which meant they were on their home court up until the Final Four.

The Huskies' biggest scare in that tournament came in the regional final, when Virginia took them to the wire before losing by four points. What if that regional had not been at Gampel Pavilion? Might it have slipped away from UConn?

This is not intended to take anything away from those Huskies; they went undefeated that year and might have done so even if they'd played all their games on neutral courts -- or on the moon, for that matter.

But the point is, that's the system that used to be in place, and UConn's Geno Auriemma has spoken out multiple times that he'd just as soon not return to it.

Ultimately, this seems to be a money decision for 2014, and sometimes pragmatism is what we must accept. There might be wholesale changes in the tournament format/sites, actually, even as early as 2015. We'll see.

It's important not to make comparisons to the all-neutral format of the men's basketball NCAA tournament. We all know that's a very different entity.

The women have modeled the men in many ways since the NCAA began having a tournament for women's hoops in 1982. But there have always been struggles with aspects of that model not fitting quite right, along with hesitation about making changes. Or a lack of resolve to stick with changes when they've been made.

The folks making these decisions on NCAA women's basketball want to do this right; I really believe that. But that doesn't mean they are right about this particular decision for 2014. Again, like I said, we've been through this all before. There is no guaranteed formula: Do it this way, and the tournament will have both great attendance at every game and a fair scenario for everyone, competition-wise.

If it were easy, it would have been in place by now. The growing pains for the women's tournament still exist. And they might be quite painful for some very good teams this season if they find themselves on someone else's home court in a regional.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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