Commentary

No easy path for any team at this point

Originally Published: March 16, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

This is how Monday went for the coaching staffs of the nation's top women's basketball teams: "La-la-la-la-la … I'm not thinking about it. … Are we a 2 or a 3 seed? … Are we in UConn's region? … la-la-la … It's out of my control, so I won't think about it. … la-la-la … What are they saying on the Internet? I'll die if we're with UConn. …… la-la-la … It really doesn't bother me, though, because the only thing I can control is how we play, not whom we play. … la-la-la … Wait, I can't even always control that. … la-la-la … "What time is it? Noon? It was noon three hours ago!"

Danielle Gant and Takia Starks
AP Photo/Paul ZoellerDanielle Gant, Takia Starks and Texas A&M drew a tough seed -- No. 2 in Trenton behind unbeaten Connecticut.

At least that's what top seeds other than the Huskies were thinking. Everybody else is worried about facing UConn while UConn coach Geno Auriemma is just worried about "being" UConn. You know, he always finds something to fret about.

So it was a long day of waiting … but now the 2009 women's NCAA tournament bracket has been revealed, with UConn, Maryland, Oklahoma and Duke receiving No. 1 seeds. Texas A&M gets the "death seed" as the No. 2 in the Trenton Regional. That's where UConn has been inked in -- not penciled in -- at the top since before the season even started. Maybe you could even say the invitation -- "We would respectfully like to request the presence of Connecticut as our No. 1 seed in Trenton, N.J." -- was engraved in October.

Now either I'm getting mellower, the committee is doing a better job or some combination of both, but this makes two years in a row that I haven't screamed when I've seen the bracket.

Is it flawless? It never is; it can't be. But most of it makes sense.

I had a feeling Texas A&M was going to head to Trenton, and I know some folks will say that's not fair. On Saturday at the Big 12 tournament, the Aggies beat Oklahoma for the second time in three weeks. But the Sooners still got a No. 1 and -- if they advance -- will be back in Oklahoma City, site of the Big 12 tournament this year and 20 minutes from OU's campus.

However, that's a "body of work" thing; OU won the Big 12 regular-season title. And unfortunately for Texas A&M, the Aggies' loss to Baylor in the Big 12 final helped give the Lady Bears what might be viewed as a more desirable path -- going to Lubbock, Texas, for the early rounds, then as the No. 2 behind Maryland in the Raleigh Regional.

Texas A&M coach Gary Blair had campaigned during the league tournament for the committee to "send me home" because he is a Texas Tech graduate. Because Texas Tech didn't make the NCAA field, it seemed certain one of the six Big 12 teams in the field would go there.

I say "seemed" certain, though, because the committee hasn't always done what appeared to be logical. Such as in 2004, when there were seven Big 12 teams in the field but none of them was placed in Ames, Iowa, when Iowa State hosted but didn't make the tournament.

So, that shows growth, if you will, from the committee.

Of course, not every team will be so fond of where it is going to play. The nature of having 16 predetermined sites means that we are almost always bound to get at least one top seed having to play an early-round game on the home court of a team with a worse seed.

[+] EnlargeChante Black
James Lang/US PresswireChante Black and top-seeded Duke are headed to East Lansing, where 9-seed Michigan State -- Blue Devils' coach Joanne P. McCallie's former team -- could be waiting in the second round.

I used to rail against this because it does compromise the integrity of the bracket. There is not a similar path along seed lines; in fact, sometimes there are widely varying paths.

For instance, let's look at the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds this season because they are an example of this very thing.

Among the top seeds, UConn and Maryland get to play at home because they are early-round hosts. But both Duke (Berkeley Regional) and Oklahoma could have to play second-round games on their worse-seeded opponents' home courts: the Blue Devils at Michigan State and the Sooners at Iowa.

Yes, things would then flip for the Sooners because, if they advance, they are the top seed that is located closest to its regional -- very close indeed. It's being played in the Sooners' backyard. However, what if they don't even get there because the Hawkeyes get hot on their home floor?

And how motivated do you think Michigan State might be to defeat former coach Joanne P. McCallie's Duke team if those two teams meet in the second round in East Lansing, Mich.? (The committee likes setting up these potential soap operas, doesn't it? Along those same lines, Duke and Texas could meet in the Berkeley Regional final … although I can't see the Longhorns getting that far the way they played in the Big 12 tournament.)

OK, now let's go to the No. 2s … three of them could have second-round games on their opponents' home court: Stanford at No. 10 San Diego State, Auburn at No. 7 Rutgers and Texas A&M at No. 7 Notre Dame.

And we should point out a freakish thing that has repeated itself with Notre Dame and Big 12 teams meeting in the second round in the past decade-plus. The Irish have upset a Big 12 team in that round four times: No. 3 Texas in 1997, No. 1 Texas Tech in 1998, No. 3 Kansas State in 2003 and No. 4 Oklahoma last year. The Irish were seeded 6, 9, 11 and 5 in those seasons. So beware of potential killer leprechauns, Aggies.

As I said, I used to rail against having 16 predetermined sites because it's really just wrong for a worse-seeded team to have a home-court advantage. Unfortunately, it's something the sport still has to deal with.

Going to eight sites the past four years lessened the chances of that happening, but the early rounds were not as well attended in that setup. Hence, the move back to 16 sites. For many years, we had the top 16 seeds hosting those games. But having predetermined sites is necessary for television to broadcast every game.

So we live with these built-in flaws. Not an easy thing to explain to players who've earned a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, though, and have to deal with this. But it's just the way it is.

Committee chairwoman Jacki Silar, asked about this on ESPN and later in a teleconference, once again gave the traditional-committee kinds of answers. Which amounts to being deliberately obtuse and going into principles and procedures mumbo-jumbo.

When Silar was asked, "What about No. 1 Duke potentially having to play No. 9 Michigan State on its home court?" she answered, "They just naturally fall into that placing. And that's where they would go according to our principles regarding bracketing."

And I want to beat my head against a wall.

The question isn't whether Duke and Michigan State were properly placed on the bracket. The question is, "Isn't it unfortunate when it works out this way: That a No. 1 is put in this position because of the setup of having predetermined sites?"

The answer should be, "Yes, it is unfortunate, but this is the type of concession we make for where the sport is now. We didn't get good-enough crowds having eight teams in one place -- and even in that system, there was a potential for a worse seed hosting a better seed. So we went back to 16 sites to improve the attendance, although that increases the possibilities to have worse-seeded teams hosting.

"And we have predetermined sites because it's too expensive and difficult logistically for television to wait until the bracket is done to know where all the games will be played. Predetermined sites saves time and money. That's the bottom line."

The committee does the best it can with an inherently flawed format that is the sport's best "compromise" at this point. So what's wrong with the truth?

However, at some point, all teams have to look at it like this: Although some roads seem less troublesome than others, there is no easy path anymore.

There might be some déjà vu moments of fairly recent vintage. Top-seeded Maryland might face 9-seed Utah in the second round. And, remember, the Utes almost knocked off the Terps in the 2006 Elite Eight. Maryland escaped in overtime -- or else there would have been no opportunity for "The Shot" by Kristi Toliver. (I'll bet Gail Goestenkors, whose Duke Blue Devils lost to Maryland in the title game that year, is still a little peeved at Utah for that.)

Also in the Raleigh Regional, fourth-seeded Vanderbilt could meet No. 5 Kansas State in the second round. Those teams faced off -- with their seeds switched -- in the 2005 second round, and that game went down to the wire.

In the Oklahoma City Regional, third-seeded North Carolina could face No. 6 Purdue in the second round -- and that was an Elite Eight matchup in 2007.

Speaking of "Well, we meet again" moments … No. 5 seed Tennessee could face top-seeded Duke and No. 2 seed Stanford in the Berkeley Regional. The slightly-humbled-this-season Orange Crush have played both those teams this season -- falling to Duke and beating Stanford -- and have interesting histories against both programs.

Speaking of Tennessee, Pat Summitt's program has gone to at least the Sweet 16 every season since the NCAA tournament began in 1982 (27 consecutive appearances). So which team might be in position to finally end that streak?

No. 4 seed Iowa State, which does have some history in that giant-killing department. A decade ago, the Cyclones beat one of the two titans of the sport -- UConn -- in the Sweet 16.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com/.

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