Top teams could be forced to play on the road

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw wasn’t thrilled when the NCAA women’s tournament bracket was released Monday.

Her No. 1-seeded Irish were the latest among the nation’s top teams to be put on course for an early round game on an opponent’s home court. It’s something that’s been happening frequently since tournament switched to predetermined sites a decade ago.

“I’m very disappointed that a No. 1 seed wasn’t protected,” McGraw said. “It makes the regular season seem like it doesn’t matter. We earned the right to be a No. 1 seed. The way they had the designated sites is not a fair way to do it ... the top 16 teams need to host. We need to go back to the way that it was done before. But we’ve got to be able to win, no matter where we’re playing.”

This year five of the top 12 seeds could potentially play a true road game in the second round. There isn’t much that can be done to fix it for now, as women’s basketball attendance isn’t strong enough to support a move to neutral courts.

That means the Irish, Kentucky, California, Penn State and North Carolina could face home teams with a berth in the regional semifinals on the line.

Notre Dame was hoping to be sent to Columbus, Ohio — the only one of the 16 sites that doesn’t have a host team playing. Instead they will have to travel to Iowa City where a tough second round matchup with host Iowa could be looming.

“We tried to avoid it several different times by putting them on a neutral court, but we just couldn’t get the bracket to work,” said St. John’s associate vice president for athletics Kathy Meehan, who is on the selection committee. “You want to protect the No. 1 seed as much as you can.”

The Irish are the only No. 1 seed that isn’t hosting the first two rounds. They had played at home in three of the previous four NCAA tournaments. They wanted to host this year but, due to circumstances outside the women’s basketball office, they missed the deadline to apply.

All top 16 teams hosted the first couple of rounds in the past, but that was ditched in 2003 and there are no plans to go back to it.

“It’s completely our fault that we’re not hosting,” McGraw said. “We could have. You have to play good teams and so we’ll start out with a neutral game and see where we go from there.”

If the NCAA tournament somehow did go back to that system they would lose some really good sites. Gonzaga has been one of the most exciting places the past few seasons drawing huge crowds. Sixth-seeded Delaware is hosting for the first time this year and both sessions have been sold out for weeks.

“I’ve been in every situation, they’ll be a lot of pressure on the host team playing on their home court to advance,” said North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell, who could face Delaware in the second round. “I tell my team the ball’s the same size, rim’s the same size, the court’s similar. You just have to go out and win.”

Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb didn’t seem to mind having to travel to Lubbock to potentially face Texas Tech in the second round. The Red Raiders are 14-3 at home this season, including wins against tournament teams Kansas, Oklahoma State and West Virginia.

“I’m pretty cognizant of the issues that face women’s basketball,” she said. “We’re in a position now where we need to play at home sites in the first two rounds.

“That’s part of the reason we played a tough non-conference road schedule to prepare us for this.”

Over the past decade, one of the top 12 teams has been forced to play an opponent on their home court 21 times according to STATS. The higher seed has prevailed in 13 of those matchups, including going 3-1 last season. In comparison, over the same span higher seeds that didn’t have to play true road games were 80-19, STATS said.

Third-seeded Penn State will travel to LSU for the second straight year and could meet the host team in the second round. Last year the Nittany Lions were a four seed and beat the No. 5 Tigers by 10. They also as a six-seed lost to No. 3 DePaul at home in 2011.

“Being a higher seed playing on a lower seeds home court is one of the inevitable realities of the women’s NCAA tournament,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. “Our program has been on both sides of it. We have hosted higher seeds on our home court and we have had to travel and play on a lower seed’s home court. Until our sport grows to the point where playing on truly neutral courts is a reality, we will be stuck with these kinds of situations every year.”

Kentucky, which could face host St. John’s in the second round, was actually happy to be headed to New York. The second-seeded Wildcats have two players from the area.

“When Queens looked like someplace we could go, clearly with Jennifer (O’Neill) and Jelleah (Sidney) that was the most exciting and attractive place for us outside of going to Columbus where our fans could travel,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said.

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