The NCAA women's Division I basketball committee kept surprises to a minimum yesterday in announcing invitations to the 64-team tournament field.
Connecticut (29-0) and Tennessee (29-2), the two teams that have topped the Associated Press poll all season, received top seeds in their regions, the East and Mideast, respectively.
The nine-member committee took care to set up what could be the most anticipated championship game ever, placing the two teams on opposite sides of the bracket to ensure that if they meet, it won't be until the title game April 2. Connecticut beat Tennessee, 77-66, in Storrs, Conn., in mid-January.
"We wanted to avoid them meeting before the Final Four. They had earned the right to probably not do that," said Linda Bruno, the chair of the women's committee.
In addition, the Huskies and Volunteers, who already were scheduled to be hosts for the regional semifinals and finals, also will hold first- and second-round games, meaning that neither team will have to leave home before the Final Four in Minneapolis, assuming they get that far.
Bruno, commissioner of the Atlantic 10 Conference, said the fact that Connecticut and Tennessee could be host to four tournament games is a reflection of the growing pains the women's game is undergoing -- gaining wider acceptance, but still needing to go to familiar sites that draw crowds.
"We are not going to put our student-athletes into empty or near-empty arenas to satisfy someone's curiosity," Bruno said.
In an attempt to bring a measure of neutrality to the tournament, the committee this year adopted a format by which four teams will play first-round games at the home arena of the top four seeds in each region, a change from the past, when the higher-seeded team was host in each round.
In the new format, second-round games will be played at the first-round site, even if the host team loses.
"It was really imperative to get away from having 32 teams getting first-round advantages. Half the field had an advantage. This is a first step," said Bernadette McGlade, a committee member and associate athletic director at Georgia Tech.
Besides Tennessee and Connecticut, Colorado (27-2), which swept through the Big Eight regular season and tournament undefeated, and Vanderbilt (26-6), which beat the Volunteers in last week's Southeastern Conference finals, received top seeds.
The SEC, the traditional women's power league, flexed its muscle again, getting seven of its 12 teams into the tournament field, with four of them (Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Georgia and Alabama) each receiving one of the 16 national seeds.
The Pac-10 got five bids, and the Atlantic Coast, Big Eight, Big Ten and Metro conferences each placed four teams in the field. Seven schools (Florida A&M;, Furman, Maine, San Francisco, Tulane, UC-Irvine and Western Illinois) will make their first tournament appearance.
Virginia, the regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference champion, got a No. 3 seed in the East, and North Carolina, the ACC tournament winner and defending national champion, received the third seed in the West. Duke, which had not made an appearance in seven years, got the fifth seed in the East. North Carolina State, which had been shut out since 1990-91, drew the seventh seed in the Midwest.
However, Clemson (19-9, 9-7 in the ACC) failed to make the field, breaking a string of seven straight NCAA tournament appearances and making it the first ACC team to win nine conference games and not be invited to the tournament.
"We struggled with Clemson," Bruno said. "They lost their last three games and their nonconference [schedule] is only OK. I think the ACC is a very good conference, but when we got down to looking at Clemson, we were not comfortable moving them into the bracket."