It's NCAA Tournament time and for the tenth time in Coach Brenda Frese's twelve seasons the Maryland Terrapins women's basketball team is dancing. During that period, the men's team has been wallflowers with half that number of invitations. Later today, we'll take a look at some possible opponents that stand in Maryland's way on the road to Nashville. For now, Here's a brief look at the broader picture.
This is the fourth consecutive season that the Terps are serving as hosts for the first two rounds. As part of the NCAA's drive to find ways to attract more fans to these early round games, if a host school makes the tournament they are guaranteed at least one home game regardless of their seed. The NCAA is considering a system to "reward" the higher seeds by having them host games rather than having the first two rounds at fixed sites. (More on this later.) Even under this system. as a fourth seed in the Louisville region, Maryland would still be a host school. So this weekend's games are your opportunity to see some early round NCAA action, get great seats, and not spend much money (less than $20 per ticket per session) and this story is my chance to engage in some editorial ranting.
Let's get over the idea that "it's women's basketball and thus uninteresting to watch." I have to admit that my schedule hasn't allowed me to see a significant number of men's games this season but if the men's ACC Tournament is any indication of the entertainment value and the level and quality of play then I can only scoff at those who so casually dismiss the women's game.
Here are the principal differences. Men's games have dunks and occasional above the rim blocked shots. Women's games are played below the rim. One outcome is that women's games tend to have more jump balls. Men's games may be a step or step and a half faster but in the quarter court offense, this is marginally noticeable. Women's games have consistently better execution and shooting. And in Maryland's case, the women have Alyssa Thomas. I'm probably not convincing many of you so I'm done. Rant over.
UConn and Notre Dame - the top two
Certainly based on the regular season, two teams have separated themselves - the defending national champion UConn Huskies and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Coach Geno Auriemma has flatly stated that if the Huskies play their best basketball, no on can beat them. Coach Muffet McGraw and her Fighting Irish may have something to say about that.
Because of conference realignment, Connecticut, which typically plays a difficult schedule, tried to toughen up their non-conference foes. The Huskies finished number two in RPI but only played the nineteenth toughest schedule - a reflection of their top-heavy, relatively weak conference. Perhaps anticipating a potential matchup with the Huskies, the Irish not only made an undefeated run through the gauntlet of the second strongest conference in women's basketball, they also played a schedule that rated the fourth most difficult nationally.
How did the Selection Committee treat these two squads? ESPN's five analysts couldn't agree about which region was the strongest with two naming Louisville, two naming Notre Dame, and one choosing Stanford. They did achieve unanimity on selecting the easiest region: Lincoln. The top seed of the Lincoln region is the Connecticut Huskies. Of course, Notre Dame has the regional on their home court so...
SEC Rules - the other top seeds
As for the other top seeds, both come from the SEC. South Carolina, coached by former UVA great Dawn Staley, will have the pleasure of traveling west for their regional. Should they reach the Elite Eight, the Gamecocks' likely opponent will be the second seeded Stanford Cardinal who they will play on Stanford's home court. The Cardinal are one of the traditional powers in women's college basketball and feature one of the top candidates for national Player of the Year - Chiney Ogwumike. Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer will attempt to guide Stanford into their tenth Final Four and sixth in the last seven years. Why did the Committee punish Stanford by dropping them to a number two seed for losing in the semi-final of their conference tournament (despite their number three RPI rank and ninth rated strength of schedule) while appearing to reward the Gamecocks for losing in their conference's semi final while playing the twenty-first most difficult schedule and finishing sixth in RPI? Well, it's the NCAA and no other explanation should be needed.
The Tennessee Volunteers are the top seed in the Louisville region and are the team set to match up with Maryland in the Sweet Sixteen should both teams win their first and second round games. The Vols are in their second season without legendary coach Pat Summitt. Summitt's successor, long time assistant Holly Warlick, has led Tennessee into the Tournament in both her years at the helm.
There's intrigue in this region as well. The Louisville Cardinals knocked the Vols out of last year's tournament in the Elite Eight and are a possible foe for them in the the same round. These Cardinals are the third seed in the region but will potentially play their Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games on their home court. So if the Vols are to gain a measure of revenge, they will have to do at Louisville. Of course, should Maryland upset Tennessee while Louisville holds serve against second seeded West Virginia, then we'll be able to watch the third NCAA match-up between Brenda Frese and her one time assistant, Jeff Walz. Fireworks all around.
Those of you unfamiliar with women's basketball may wonder how lower seeded teams could end up not merely in arenas close to home but actually on their home court. Here's an answer: A dozen or so years ago, home court regional games were commonplace. The NCAA then switched to "neutral" sites. Thus, in an example that hits close to home for Terrapins fans, NC State could host a regional but the games would be played at RBC Center rather than the Wolfpack's home court Reynolds Coliseum. (The men play at RBC and the women play at Reynolds.) They would then allegedly place teams according to the same geographical S curve they use for the men's tournament.
However, the crowds at the regional games failed to match the NCAA's expectations. So, the NCAA did what any good bureaucracy does, the organized a committee and commissioned a white paper. While they were busy meeting to discuss ways to improve attendance, and getting their white paper issued, they never came to a firm decision regarding how to structure the 2014 Tournament. Unsure how to proceed, the NCAA announced a one year return to regional sites on schools' home courts. This NCAA decision came after schools had bid to host the first two rounds and because Maryland had done that, they were precluded from bidding to host a regional. Kinda like double secret probation, if you ask me. Those interested in reading about this in detail can follow this link.
Come back to Testudo Times later today for an in depth look at the Louisville region and the challenges the Terps face as they look to return to the Final Four for the first time since the magical 2006 run to the Natty.