The baby steps the NCAA's Division I women's basketball committee took to get the tournament toward playing the draw on neutral courts rolled over a pair of top seeds yesterday, when the 64-team field was announced.
Last year, the NCAA approved a format for this year's field that moved the location of first- and second-round games - which previously had been awarded to the top four seeds in each regional - to pre-determined sites.
But there was a significant rub. The sites for those games this year were chosen last summer, with the agreement that the host teams would be placed there if they made the tournament.
"In looking forward in what we're trying to accomplish, pre-determined sites is the first step toward moving to neutral sites," said Cheryl Marra, the chair of the tournament committee. "We have the opportunity this year to put some teams at two neutral sites, which will give us the benchmark of how successful that is."
For this year's tournament, that means Tennessee and Connecticut, the top seeds in the Mideast and East, will play host to first- and second-round games. However, Louisiana State and Duke, which received the top seeds in the West and Midwest, respectively, become the first No. 1 seeds not to play at home for the first two rounds.
For the Durham N.C.-based Blue Devils, that means only a 20-mile ride to Raleigh and Reynolds Coliseum, but LSU will have to play its first two games in Eugene, Ore., as well as the regional at Stanford, the West's third seed.
In fact, nine of the 16 first- and second-round sites don't have a host team playing there. Villanova (25-5), the No. 2 seed in the Mideast, might have to play No. 10 seed Oklahoma in Norman in the second round.
In addition to the pre-determined sites, the women's tournament committee tinkered with the format, spreading the regionals out over a four-day span rather than stacking them over two days. And the Final Four, to be played at the Georgia Dome, will follow the men's Final Four, rather than precede it.
For the first time in tournament history, all 63 games will be televised, as ESPN will carry the games on its two main channels and on its pay-per-view arm.
The top four seeds all ran to form. The defending national champion Huskies (31-1), whose women's record 70-game winning streak was broken in the Big East final by Villanova, was awarded the tournament's top overall seed by virtue of having beaten both Tennessee and Duke this season.
The Lady Vols (28-4), who ran the table in the Southeastern Conference during the regular season, received their third straight No. 1 seed and will not have to leave Thompson-Boling Arena to get to the Final Four. Their first- and second-round games, as well as the Mideast Regional, will be played in Knoxville.
Meanwhile, LSU (27-3), which beat Tennessee in the SEC tournament final, got the final No. 1 seed over Texas (25-5). The Lady Longhorns won the Big 12 regular season and conference tournament but lost to the Tigers in the regular season.
The Blue Devils (31-1), who have won a record four straight Atlantic Coast Conference tournament titles, will look to go to their third Final Four in four seasons.
The Big East, long thought in women's circles to be little more than Connecticut and a group of also-rans, not only tied the mighty SEC with seven bids, but placed all but two of their teams in the upper half of the draw.
Villanova's seeding was surprisingly high, while Miami (18-12) got a controversial at-large bid despite finishing seventh in the league.
"They did a great deal in many different schools to accomplish that," said Marra. "Obviously, they played their way into those seeds."
The Big Ten landed six teams in the tournament, while the Big 12, which got eight teams into last year's field, received five bids, as did Conference USA. Besides Duke, the ACC got three teams in, including North Carolina, which received a No. 3 seed in the Mideast and Georgia Tech, which got its second bid ever and a No. 10 seed in the East.
Virginia (16-13), which received an eighth seed in the Mideast, is making its 20th straight appearance in the tournament and became the first team in history to reach the field as an at-large selection with as many as 13 losses.
Four schools - Alabama State, Boston University, Charlotte and Valparaiso - are making their first trip to the tournament.
The draw appears to most favor Tennessee, which can play four home games against nominal opposition before reaching Atlanta. LSU's bracket in the West includes eight teams that are ranked.