Commentary

MSU gets last word over Duke, McCallie

Blue Devils didn't play their best, but Duke was also a victim of a flawed system

Originally Published: March 24, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

There was so much emotion involved in this Duke-Michigan State matchup, and for so many different reasons.

No. 1 Duke was upset in the second round, falling 63-49 to a jubilant No. 9 seed Michigan State on the Spartans' home court in East Lansing, Mich., on Tuesday. It ended the star-crossed Duke careers of seniors Chante Black, Abby Waner and Carrem Gay, and it gave Michigan State some feelings of redemption -- if that's the right word for it.

This multifaceted drama was set in motion two years ago when coach Jody Conradt stepped down at Texas … or maybe you could say it actually goes all the way back to the night of April 4, 2006.

That evening in Boston, Duke lost the national championship game to Maryland in overtime, an emotionally devastating event for then-coach Gail Goestenkors and her Blue Devils.

The next year, on the eve of the NCAA tournament, Conradt ended her legendary career at Texas. Goestenkors, enormously successful in 15 seasons at Duke, was Texas' target from the start. Her Duke team suffered another crushing loss, falling to Rutgers in the Sweet 16 -- only the Blue Devils' second defeat that season.

[+] EnlargeAisha Jefferson
Michael Sackett/US PresswireMichigan State forced 15 Duke turnovers and harassed the Blue Devils into 27 percent shooting from the field.

Then the wait was on for Goestenkors' decision, which impacted more than her career, of course.

She took the Texas job, and the Blue Devils players -- especially Waner -- were very upset. Former Duke assistant Joanne Boyle was offered the job, but she decided she did not want to leave her Cal program.

Meanwhile, Joanne P. McCallie had agreed to a contract extension to stay at Michigan State … but she broke that a month after signing it when Duke offered her its job.

That left behind very upset Spartans players, who thought after her deal had been announced that they didn't have to worry about her leaving.

Michigan State hired Suzy Merchant, and she set about earning the affection/trust of her new players. McCallie was trying to do the same thing at Duke. But there's no way to sugarcoat this: It wasn't an easy transition for the Blue Devils.

McCallie runs a very different system than did Goestenkors. There were times in the past two seasons that Duke's offense looked as if it had adjusted to her, and times it didn't.

This season, the Blue Devils were runners-up in the ACC tournament -- with another painful overtime loss to Maryland in the final -- but got a No. 1 seed. However, this is where the setup of the women's NCAA tournament is so problematic.

The women went to a field of 64 in 1994, with all games in the early rounds at the better-seeded team's gym. The next year, the setup for the first two rounds was that the top four seeds in each region would host. So four teams would play at 16 sites, with home-court advantage being rewarded because of your seeding. The only time that didn't happen was if a school had a conflict with its home arena or some problem with hotel-room availability. But those circumstances were rare.

There was criticism of this system because people thought the home-court advantage made the early rounds too predictable.

But better-seeded teams were upset on their home courts, among the most memorable coming in 1998: No. 16 Harvard beat No. 1 Stanford in the first round, and No. 9 Notre Dame beat No. 1 Texas Tech in the second round.

Then, in 2003, the system was changed to make the first 16 sites predetermined. The reason given was supposedly to allow schools to market the subregionals all year, rather than waiting until they knew for sure they were hosting when the bracket came out.

However, promotion of games was far less a factor in having big crowds than just plain having the host team playing. There was no evidence that predetermination did anything to boost attendance.

What it did do -- and the reason behind its being used still -- is to pave the way for television to broadcast all 64 games of the tournament. It was neither logistically nor financially feasible to do that if TV had to wait until the bracket came out to know where the 16 sites were.

In 2005, a switch was made to try to create more neutral games: having eight sites with eight teams each. That system stayed for four seasons, but it had a negative impact on early-round attendance.

So this year, the tournament went back to 16 predetermined sites, and that's why there was a situation where a No. 1 had to play on a No. 9's home court. At the time bids are accepted for schools to host future games, it's obviously unknown whether their team will even be in the tournament, let alone where it might be seeded.

Michigan State
Michael Sackett/US PresswireLauren Aitch came off the bench to score 15 points in 18 minutes Tuesday, hitting 6-for-9 from the field.

Therefore, when a team that is a host does not get a top-4 seed, we get situations like what we had Monday -- when No. 2 seed Auburn lost at No. 7 Rutgers -- and Tuesday -- when top-seeded Duke lost at 9-seed Michigan State.

There were other examples of better-seeded teams prevailing on other teams' home courts, though, such as No. 2 Stanford winning at No. 10 San Diego State and No. 3 Louisville winning at No. 6 LSU.

Predetermined sites is a flawed system, but one that people who follow women's basketball are sort of forced to accept. However, people who don't follow the women's game and tune in occasionally, like Tuesday night, are baffled by what they see.

How can one No. 1 team (Duke) be playing on its opponent's home court, another No. 1 (Oklahoma) be on a neutral court, and the other two 1-seeds (UConn and Maryland) be playing at home?

Where is the consistency on the seeding line? How does this make any sense in terms of integrity of the bracket?

It doesn't, and no amount of spin can cover up this flaw. But for now, the women's game is stuck with it.

As for Michigan State, it was a cathartic win -- a chance for players and fans who might have felt "jilted" (not all did, of course) to beat a coach who left them. Others looked at it more philosophically and didn't harbor ill will against McCallie, who -- after all -- did take the program to the 2005 NCAA title game. Still, even those folks had to feel a measure of satisfaction about the Spartans' triumph.

As for Duke, it's more pain for a program that has had a lot of downs with its ups over the years. The seniors end their careers with some really tough defeats, and some of the emotional scars that can come when things change that players never expected.

In the next few years, the last of Goestenkors' recruits will cycle out, and Duke will really belong to McCallie.

Michigan State already belongs to Merchant. If that fact wasn't already cemented, it certainly was Tuesday night.

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.

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