Women stick to familiar script


In contrast to the NCAA men's tournament, where Maryland, Tulsa and Boston College have all crashed the party, Cinderella's invitation to the women's tournament has been lost in the mail.

As the women's field, newly expanded this year from 48 teams to 64, approaches its regional semifinals tomorrow night, the last have had little chance to approach the first.

All four of the top seeds have made the regionals in the East and Mideast brackets, and the top three seeds are still alive in the West and three of the top four seeds are active in the Midwest.

The average victory margin in first-round games involving the top 16 seeds was 26 points, pretty much knocking out the notion of parity, which for now is only a goal among women's enthusiasts.

The hope for the expanded tournament, which welcomed nine (( new conferences and 19 first-time teams to the field, is that the lure of postseason play will entice schools and leagues that haven't participated in the women's game to join in the fun.

"For perspective, I think you need to look back at the men's tournament, which has been at 64 for a while. They have less and less blowouts in the first round now," said Linda Bruno, the chair of the Division I women's basketball committee during a national teleconference yesterday. "There are some developing conferences that will come on. I think that [the blowouts] are some of the growing pains of expanding the brackets."

Still, of the 19 teams that entered the tournament for the first time, only two, Minnesota and Texas A&M;, won first-round games. The Aggies, the 13th seed in the West, advanced to the regionals by upsetting fourth-seed Florida and fifth-seed San Diego State in the first and second rounds, but some have questioned if the best 64 teams were invited.

"I think it's great that we expanded the field, but I do have $H concerns," said Purdue coach Lin Dunn. "I think some of the teams in the Southeastern Conference, Big Ten and Pac-10 that finished sixth or seventh are maybe more competitive than teams in some of the other conferences. I think quantity is great, but perhaps we ought to look at quality."

Unlike the men's tournament, which sends teams to compete at neutral sites, the women's game awards home games to higher seeds in the first and second rounds and keeps schools that play host to regionals in their region, giving teams a chance to play as many as four games on their home court before reaching the Final Four.

"Our next step in terms of giving each and every team a chance to win is to go to neutral sites," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, whose top-ranked Volunteers have won 40 straight home games and lead the nation in attendance. "I would give up hosting a regional tournament if in fact that would help that goal. I really think it has to happen in the next two to three years."

Bruno, who is also the associate commissioner of the Big East, said the NCAA Executive Committee has given the women's panel the power to tinker with the tournament format in terms of awarding home games.

She said the committee is studying a plan in which 16 sites would be chosen when the pairings are announced and four teams would be placed in those spots for first- and second-round games. That action might be taken after a discussion with the Women's Basketball Coaches Association at the Final Four next week.

If history is any guide, the four teams that reach the national semifinals in Richmond, Va., will come from a pool of the top eight seeds, since no team seeded lower than second in a region has won the championship in the 13 years of the tournament.

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