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Women's tourney ponders its future

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

SAN ANTONIO -- Just because the NCAA men's basketball tournament is likely to expand to 96 teams doesn't necessarily mean the women's field will grow, too.

They sure are looking into it, though.

Jane Meyer, head of the NCAA women's basketball selection committee, said Tuesday that conversations range from whether they should expand by 32 teams, to how they would do it. A subcommittee is already kicking around ideas, but no decisions have been made.

"I think it's fun to dream of the possibilities and the opportunities that it could provide," she said.

For the men, expansion talks are all about when to start. The likely format is the top 32 teams getting a first-round bye, and going with a full play-in round early the first week -- thus, keeping intact the rest of the wildly popular format.

It's not that simple for the women.

Tournament dates and early-round sites are constantly in flux as it is. In fact, consideration has been given to pushing back the start of the Final Four until the Thursday after the men's tournament ends, with the championship Saturday.

Expansion would only muddle things more. Then there would be the question of format -- the women wouldn't have to go with whatever the men pick.

And then there's the biggest issue -- whether there are 32 more teams worthy of being invited.

"Maybe someday there will be," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "I just don't see it right now."

Supporters of expansion counter that if more spots were available, more programs would gear up to earn them.

"We need women in the gym improving and getting that experience," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "I think it's a big carrot that could be used for teams and help develop our game."

Perhaps it's fitting that Auriemma and VanDerveer are on opposite sides of this debate. Their teams have been 1-2 in the poll since the preseason and were in Tuesday night's national championship game.

UConn and Stanford were so good this season that neither team lost to anyone else. UConn romped into the final having won 77 straight games and all by double digits. The Huskies were so good that people wondered whether there's already too big a talent gap in women's basketball.

The drop-off isn't only at the very top. This year's tournament quickly weeded out the haves and the have-nots.

Higher seeds won 28 of the 32 first-round games. Only one team from the bottom half of the field (11th-seeded San Diego State) reached the second weekend.

So it's not likely the next 32 teams would've put up much of a fight.

"I worry about the dilution," said Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie, whose team happened to knock out San Diego State in the round of 16.

To McCallie and like-minded Sherri Coale, coach of Final Four participant Oklahoma, expansion also would water down the significance of making the tournament.

"I'm about to go on the soapbox about my daughter's third-place soccer trophy in the garage," Coale said. "I'll spare you. But I just think that getting an invitation to go means you have accomplished something. And the wider and broader we make that field, maybe the less significant that accomplishment."

But expansion might be the only way for teams from mid-major conferences to get into the tournament. Once there, the exposure and experience gained can help them grow their program.

In 2007, MAAC champion Marist showed that schools from that league can take on the bigger programs, winning two games before running into eventual national champion Tennessee.

"Marist is a prime example of that because it shows the type of exposure you get on the national stage once you get into the tournament and produce some wins," MAAC commissioner Rich Ensor said. "It gives our administrators and coaches an argument for more focus on women's basketball than we currently give."

There's no rush for women's tournament officials to make any decisions.

Meyer noted that Title IX doesn't require men's and women's basketball to have the same size tournament. The gender-equity rule that requires the same number of championship opportunities could be made up for in, say, field hockey.

It's also worth noting that while the men's tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1984-85, the women didn't get there until 1993-94.

Were there 96 teams worthy of making this year's tournament?

"I truly believe that we were deeper into the tournament with good teams than I had seen in my five years," Meyer said.

For instance, she said, there were about a dozen teams in contention for the final three spots. That means there were at least 73 candidates. And the other 23 it would have taken to get to 96?

"I'm glad we didn't have to," she said, laughing.