Goal: 63 games, 100% percent neutral


NEW ORLEANS - The NCAA women's basketball tournament will take another step toward all 63 games being played at neutral sites, the chairman of the selection committee said yesterday.

Cheryl Marra, the senior associate athletic director at Wisconsin, said the tournament's first and second rounds will be played at eight predetermined sites, just as the men's tournament is played. And the women's committee might use a part of the controversial pod system that the men use. A site, in addition to hosting teams from one of the NCAA's regions, also can be used for the first- or second-round games of nearby schools.

However, Marra said that a school that receives a tournament site will be permitted to play its games at home, regardless of its seeding.

In this year's tournament, where 16 first- and second-round sites were predetermined by bid rather than awarding them to higher-seeded teams as in the past, only four sites were totally neutral, though Connecticut played its games at nearby Bridgeport. At eight of the sites in the first two rounds, higher seeds played against lower seeds on the lower seed's home court.

Marra said the tournament needs to remain on home floors in some cases to help boost game attendance as well as help keep production costs low for ESPN, which carries all of the tournament. The committee will meet in June to decide sites for the next two tournaments.

Marra defended the decision of the referees in the Tennessee-Baylor Midwest regional semifinal game not to speak with reporters after the controversial ending. A foul went against the Lady Bears at the end of regulation, and officials checked replays to see if time was left on the clock when the foul was called.

Marra said a pool reporter is allowed to speak with referees about rules interpretation only.

Terps back in spotlight

Maryland's return to women's basketball prominence could mean increased appearances on national television, an ESPN programmer said yesterday.

Carol Stiff, ESPN's programming director, said the channel is interested in televising some Terps games next season, likely ones with Atlantic Coast Conference rivals like Duke or North Carolina. In addition, Maryland could appear in a made-for-television matchup like the one ESPN created in 1995 between Connecticut and Tennessee.

Maryland's downturn had kept the team off television in recent seasons, save for mandated appearances on the ACC's weekly television package. But the Terps' NCAA tournament berth this year and trip to the second round as well as the arrival of a highly touted recruiting class makes them attractive to a television audience, Stiff said.

Tenn.-UConn Part III

For those who are chagrined by the prospect of a third Tennessee-Connecticut national title meeting in four years, don't be, or at least that's the view from the two coaches.

"People still want to see the big names, the superstars," said Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. "It's a personality-driven thing. So, yeah, have we created a story on Lindsay Whalen and Minnesota? Yeah. Has LSU created [a following]? Yeah. Are we there yet? I don't think so. But I think we're a lot closer [to parity] than we have ever been."

Said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt: "We had parity throughout the tournament. Now, we have what probably a lot of people throughout the country wanted to see. And you can't tell me that television isn't excited about this matchup. Why? Because those are the two teams that competed a year ago for the national championship and they're the two teams that will compete [tonight]."

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