KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The NCAA's drive to boost attendance for its women's tournament could force three No. 1 seeds to go on the road and beat lower-seeded teams on their home floor to advance.
Coaches criticized the NCAA's decision last summer to allow schools to host regionals, saying it could give teams an unfair advantage Their concerns were realized Monday night with the release of the NCAA tournament pairings.
Though the NCAA already has announced it's going back to neutral regional sites starting in 2015, teams must live with the format this year.
Carolayne Henry, chair of the Division I women's basketball committee, said. “We knew there was a possibility this could happen” when the NCAA decided to have schools host regionals this year.
Defending national champion Connecticut could meet No. 4 seed Nebraska at Lincoln in a regional semifinal. Tennessee, the No. 1 seed in the Louisville Regional, might end up facing Louisville in the regional final. South Carolina, the No. 1 seed in the Stanford Regional, may have to beat Stanford at Maples Pavilion with a Final Four berth at stake.
“That's the way they decided to do it this year, to have the regionals at home sites of schools, so we've got to go with it,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “We've been on the other end. We've hosted regionals (in the past) and won. ... It's a big factor. It's a big plus for you.”
Louisville, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Stanford were chosen in October as host sites. Notre Dame was the only team from that group to earn a No. 1 seed. Tennessee didn't bid to host a regional because of a scheduling conflict at Thompson-Boling Arena. Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said his school didn't bid because he didn't like the concept of having schools host regionals.
“I don't believe in it,” Auriemma said. “I don't think it's fair and I told our administration, ‘We're passing on it. I don't want to do it.’ So we didn't.”
Louisville coach Jeff Walz also doesn't like the idea of host sites for the regional rounds. Walz cited Louisville's 82-81 upset of top-ranked Baylor in last year's Oklahoma City Regional semifinal as evidence.
“I use us as an example,” Walz said. “If we played Baylor at Baylor last year, I'm not sure we win that game ... I'm a big proponent of playing regionals on neutral floors and I'm excited that we're going to back to.”
The decision to have schools host regionals was made in an effort to draw bigger crowds.
Last season, the NCAA posted an average attendance of 5,883 for all tournament games, a 21-percent increase over 2012. But the tournament had posted average attendances of at least 6,400 every year from 1998-2005.
The average attendance for regional rounds last year was 7,100, a 38-percent increase over 2012 but a far cry from 10 to 15 years ago. Average attendance in the regional rounds had been over 8,000 five times in a seven-year stretch from 1998-2004.
“I think home courts are a real part of the women's tournament as opposed to the men's tournament,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said.
But the move creates some potentially odd scenarios.
Connecticut would have to beat Nebraska on the Cornhuskers’ home floor in the regional semifinals if both teams win their first two tournament games. If the fourth-seeded Huskers get to a regional final, they could host No. 2 seed Duke or No. 3 seed Texas A&M.
Louisville, the No. 3 seed in its own regional, could end up hosting No. 2 seed West Virginia in a regional semifinal and top seed Tennessee in a regional championship.
Next year, the regionals will be back at neutral sites.
Auriemma has one idea for helping those neutral sites draw big crowds.
“We do have to find, I think, four cities that are hotbeds or potentially, for women's basketball and we've got to give them an opportunity to host the regionals, and give it to them for a few years at a time, instead of just a one-shot deal,” Auriemma said.
Although the NCAA still plans to have schools serve as host sites for the first two rounds of the tournament next year, those schools won't be determined before the season. The schools chosen as the top 16 seeds for the tournament will host first- and second-round games.
“There will be no drama about where you'll be sent,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “Then there will be neutral sites for the regionals. That's the way to do it. It's too hard for the committee to have to piece it together and move people around because of whose hosting and who's not hosting. I think it will make their job so much easier.”