- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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The last few years, I've written an annual column (or two) taking the NCAA women's basketball committee to task or at least questioning various things. That includes NCAA Tournament seeding issues, the move to predetermined sites, the switch to Selection Monday and even the makeup of the committee itself.
With the exception of a member who e-mailed to disagree with me one year, it never seemed the committee paid much attention to what any of us in the print (or online) media were writing.
Television appeared to be the only media voice that the committee heard, and it also seemed as if every change to the tournament was done at the behest of television.
And while we in the print world readily concede TV has gained a certain power in all sports that we don't have, we should not be completely voiceless. Especially when it comes to women's basketball, for which the written word -- be it in the newspaper or online -- is still such a primary source of media analysis.
So last April in Boston, a few weeks after writing another bash-the-committee column, I approached then-chair Joni Comstock and Sue Donohoe, the NCAA vice president for Division I women's basketball, after the committee's annual Final Four press conference.
I said I was tired of ripping them and really would rather have a chance to just talk to them about concerns. Plus ask questions in an atmosphere where they weren't on the defensive and wouldn't necessarily feel compelled to speak only in that often-infuriating language called "NCAA-ese."
We decided to gather for a print-media discussion meeting this fall at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis.
This was definitely a good step. The committee's credibility has been dented, in part, because over the years the various chairs have not had a consistent message, nor always been able to answer tough questions about the brackets. Further, some of them have insisted on denying the obvious, such as how predetermination can create built-in bracket problems. And they've at times not just contradicted something a past chair said but even contradicted themselves. In the same teleconference.
Yet my point here is not to throw stones. This is a hard job, and like everything else in women's basketball, there have been stumbles along the way. That's to be expected.
Did I leave the meeting thinking, "Wow, now everything the committee does makes sense?" No. But a few things were made clearer, such as what strength of schedule really is and how the S curve is used. Further, there was an acknowledgment that the committee hasn't always done a satisfactory job of explaining itself but really does want to do that.
I see that accountability as the biggest positive of the meeting. Who likes to be second-guessed? It is very irritating, especially when you feel you've tried your best. However, it's something the committee has to deal with, and facing that is always better than running away from it.
As far as the meeting details, the NCAA consulted with several reporters and invited about 30 print media people. The NCAA provided dinner the night before and breakfast/lunch the day of the meeting. We had to pay for our travel and (if needed) overnight lodging expenses through our newspapers. As you can imagine, in today's economic climate at newspapers, trips for anything are closely scrutinized and often rejected. Thus, there were certainly folks who wanted to come but could not.
Ten reporters/editors attended the meeting on Nov. 2: editor Jim Lefko and reporter Steve Ballard of the Indianapolis Star; Associated Press writer Jim O'Connell; AP poll coordinator Chuck Schoffner, USA Today's Dick Patrick; JoAnne Klimovich Harrop of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review; Mike Carmin of the Lafayette (Ind.) Journal and Courier, Lori Shontz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, women's poll creator Mel Greenberg of the Philadelphia Inquirer and me. Milton Kent of the Baltimore Sun joined in via phone.
All pertinent NCAA staff members were there to talk with us, including Donohoe, Michelle Perry, director for the Division I women's basketball championship, and associate director Rick Nixon. Plus committee chair Judy Southard from LSU.
Shontz had joked with me the night before that the NCAA folks displayed how little they actually know about print-media people by starting the meeting at 8 a.m. A great many of us are nocturnal creatures who think 8 a.m. is a very bad time to even have your eyes open briefly, let alone be out of bed, dressed in something other than pajamas and having to talk to people.
Seriously, though, the other thing she and I discussed was that women's basketball is in a unique position among NCAA Division I sports. It's not anywhere near the big two: football and men's hoops. However, it's significantly above other college sports in terms of national media coverage (print and broadcast) and attendance.
Women's basketball is all alone as kind of the "middle child" not necessarily unhappy, but frequently experiencing growing pains and wondering exactly who it is and what it can be.
Part of that pain is that the multiple changes made in the NCAA Tournament since 2003 were all done to aid and increase television coverage but have not necessarily resulted in equitable brackets or better attendance. Nor have we had enough time with all the changes to fairly rate if they've been a success or not.
None of the changes were made with the print media in mind, which we've just come to expect. Like I said, it's that way in all sports. We still have our opinions to share, though.
Let's go over the major changes that began, starting with the 2003 NCAA Tournament. That's when the early rounds went from being played at the top 16 seeds to being played at 16 predetermined sites. Also that year, the Final Four was changed to Sunday-Tuesday from Friday-Sunday. This allowed the preceding regional semifinals and finals to spread out over a four-day period -- Saturday through Tuesday -- rather than needing to have all eight semis on Saturday and all four finals Monday.
In 2005, there was another switch: to eight predetermined sites for early rounds instead of 16. In 2006, one more change: The field was announced Monday night instead of late Sunday afternoon. No more "Selection Sunday."
Here are some thoughts on all of those things:
• We'll start with predetermined sites. Clearly, it's easier for ESPN to broadcast every game of the tournament when it doesn't have to wait until selection day to know for sure where those early-round games are being played.
However, in the old system, 16 seeds had the home-court advantage because they earned it through season results. Now, only eight teams might have a home-court advantage in the early rounds -- but they get it through buying it.
And forget about equity always being there across the seeding lines. Under predetermination, you might be, say, a No. 1 seed that is far from home in the early rounds while another No. 1 (or more than one) might be hosting. Further, there have been and will continue to be situations where a team is hosting despite having a worse seed than the team it is playing.
The stated utopian goal by the NCAA is to eventually have all games at neutral sites -- although I have no idea when that could possibly happen. Sure, with just eight sites, there are more neutral games than ever before. But it's still not all. The women can't take home-court advantage away from schools that are hosts -- that would really devastate attendance.
On that front, look at how neutral games draw compared to games that involve a host team. With eight sites, you're hoping a decent-sized crowd from the local community at each place will attend six games (as opposed to the previous three games in 16 communities). And there's the chance that none of those games might involve a local team.
The women's tournament has tried to get as close to replicating the men's setup as possible -- yet because of the smaller fan base, it isn't the same.
As mentioned, there will be teams that get a home-court advantage that teams of the same seed or better don't get. There will be dead-atmosphere sites, such as the one at University Park, Pa., last season, when Penn State wasn't in the tournament. The folks running it did an excellent job, but the area just wasn't plugged into the event.
And on the bright side, there will be some success stories at neutral sites.
It's a mixed bag -- and likely will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
• Because there is still the element of home-court advantage in early rounds, the selection committee runs into dilemmas about fudging on seeding in ways that the men's committee doesn't deal with. Also, the women's committee members might have in the backs of their minds the idea of maximizing attendance based on geography.
Whether they'll acknowledge any of this probably depends on whom you talk to and if you're on or off the record.
• Last season, the committee had a heck of a debate about putting Tennessee and North Carolina in the same region. But that's what the committee did, and it got grilled for it. We asked about it at this meeting, and the explanation -- while technically in line, I suppose, with the principles and procedures -- didn't make much practical sense. I also didn't think there was a satisfactory explanation why Western Kentucky was left out of the field last season.
With North Carolina-Tennessee, what didn't add up was how the two teams that were 1-2 in the RPI could be in the same region. If North Carolina was deemed the overall No. 1 seed, then did that mean Tennessee was rated by the committee as the fourth No. 2, as you might be led to believe based on a standard S curve?
No, the NCAA explained, Tennessee wasn't rated as the eighth-best team. They used this sentence to explain it: "Teams will be assigned to the most geographically compatible regional and first/second round site by order of the S curve."
When I asked if that meant geography ultimately trumped the S curve, at first the answer was no. We went back and forth on that, and the final answer was that you use the S curve to determine in what order teams get their geographically closest assignment.
The NCAA folks did not reveal the exact order of the top eight seeds last year, but based on what they said and how it was assigned, this is my guess: North Carolina, LSU, Duke, Ohio State, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Maryland.
That meant North Carolina was put in the Cleveland regional, which isn't remotely "close" to Chapel Hill but closer than Bridgeport, San Antonio or Albuquerque. LSU was placed in San Antonio, Duke in Bridgeport and Ohio State in Albuquerque. (The Buckeyes never actually made it to New Mexico because they were upset by Boston College, but that's another story.)
Then Tennessee was next, and Cleveland is the closest place to Knoxville. Oklahoma is closest to San Antonio, Connecticut obviously to Bridgeport and then Maryland had to go west to New Mexico.
Ultimately, wouldn't it have been better to place Tennessee the fourth No. 1, in Albuquerque, and give Ohio State the "first" No. 2 and put the Buckeyes in the Cleveland regional? I was told that was seriously debated, but the vote didn't go that way.
I guess my other issue with this "geographically closest" stuff is it can be a bit absurd. You could get into situations where one city is 800 miles from a team and another city is 900 miles away it's more or less the same plane ride either way.
Of course, you might also wonder, like I do, if in reality Connecticut was locked into Bridgeport no matter where the Huskies were on this theoretical S curve. Let me remind you what Comstock said on the selection-day teleconference in March when someone asked that question.
She first replied it was just the way the bracket worked out. Then she added, "But one of the reasons that the committee did this was we felt strongly that placing teams close in their geographical areas would help develop the game and increase and improve attendance and interest."
So make of that what you will. Past chair Cheryl Marra had said in 2004 that the committee's job was to follow the "integrity of the seeds" and not bring possible attendance-booster considerations to the table.
As for strength of schedule, that was given as a primary reason Western Kentucky didn't get in the 2006 tournament. But the team's schedule included Louisiana Tech, Louisville, Arizona State and Vanderbilt, all of which made it in the NCAA field. Western Kentucky beat Louisiana Tech and Louisville at home, and fell at Vandy and at Arizona State. Western Kentucky lost the Sun Belt tournament title game to Middle Tennessee -- on Middle Tennessee's home court.
At the meeting, it was pointed out to us that strength of schedule is how well the teams you play do against other teams. So you could have a schedule that "looks" quite hard but in fact the teams on it don't do as well as you were hoping when you scheduled them. Conversely, sometimes cream puff-looking schedules might turn out stronger than you think if your foes end up doing better than expected.
That did clarify strength of schedule better for me. Still doesn't really explain Western Kentucky's omission. The committee needs to make sure its "message" to schools about what it's looking for is consistent year to year.
• About "Selection Monday" this was entirely driven by TV. The thought was that it would give the women's selection show its "own time" on Monday night. On Sunday afternoon, ESPN had run into the problem of men's conference tournament championship games running into the time slot for the women's selection show.
The cynical side of me thinks it's more a case of wanting to get the women out of the way on Sunday so the network can focus on men's hoops. But whatever the real reason or reasons, this is the decision that has the most potentially damaging effect on us in the print media.
There are two reasons. One is not universal, but probably affects more newspapers than not. Many of them, including my paper, the Kansas City Star, have special sections that come out on Monday after "Selection Sunday." These are typically always more about the men, of course, but women's coverage had at least carved out a space in many of those sections over time.
Now, newspapers are filling all that space with men's stories and the women are moved to Tuesday. Ideally, we'd get the same space Tuesday as we had on Monday and potentially better placement because the women's bracket release would be "news." But that wasn't the case for everyone this past season.
Some at our meeting felt they had less space and were even more an "afterthought." A few others felt, though, that this might turn out to be beneficial for better women's coverage after papers adjust to it and plan accordingly.
However, that brings up the second reason this hurts us on the print side: It has taken away precious time on deadline. The later the selection show is, the less reporters are going to be able to write about it for that next day's paper. Deadlines are not flexible, and we just flat run out of time.
The NCAA folks said they are not forever wedded to Selection Monday. They'll see how it goes, and revisit it if it appears it's not really helping the tournament. That doesn't mean they'll change it back, though.
• The upshot of all of this? There is no "solution" per se to these issues -- not to mention other things I haven't brought up. Such as the attendance at regional sites, which is not as good nor consistent as many hoped it would be by this point.
And what do the players think? Do they even feel they have a voice? They are, obviously, the most important part of all of this. This is their tournament, so what do they really want out of the experience? Do they really care as much about attendance as fans, officials and media? Or is a "good" tournament for them simply a matter of their team's success?
How about the fans? You buy the tickets, you make the atmosphere. For that matter, you help drive media coverage. That's all positive power. Use it.
It seems like the people in a decision-making capacity about the tournament have their hearts in the right place. Donohoe and Perry are leading the charge at the NCAA, and clearly they want a competitive, fair tournament with good crowds and media exposure at every venue.
It's just difficult to accomplish all of that. Some of it really is out of their control.
I won't promise I'm never going to tweak the committee again. Doing that sometimes is just a necessary part of the job. But I understand their point of view better now and commend the NCAA officials and Southard for setting aside the time to talk to us and listen to what we had to say.
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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