Irish women run afoul of bracket rules

Failure to follow procedure makes them only top seed not hosting at least 1 NCAA tournament game at home

Chicago Tribune sports columnist Philip Hersh discusses the NCAA women's basketball tournament. (Posted on: March 22, 2013)

No sooner had the NCAA women's basketball committee announced the bracket for the Division I tournament Monday than Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw expressed her displeasure over what had happened to her team.

That the Irish are the only top seed not opening the tournament on their home court is their fault.

That they face a potential second-round matchup against Iowa on the Hawkeyes' home court is what rankled McGraw, who could not understand why Notre Dame had not been assigned an available, relatively close neutral site for the first and second rounds.

"I should have given myself a mandatory cooling off period before I spoke," McGraw said, laughing, three days later. "I went home that night and said, `We're going to Iowa. Let's play.' I'm over it.''

Yet she also would like to return to the old system of assigning tournament sites. From the tournament's inception in 1982 through 2002, even as the field grew in stages from 32 to 64, the high seeds would have home-court advantage for at least the sub-regional rounds.

"It would make the regular season more meaningful," McGraw said. "As coaches, you understand that and accept you have the chance to earn the home court."

In an effort to give lower-seeded teams a chance at upsets in the opening rounds, the women's basketball committee has turned to 16 pre-selected sites. That plan had been used briefly in the past and was adopted again beginning with the 2009 tournament. But under current bracketing rules, any of the 64 teams whose school had been pre-selected as a site gets to play at home for the opening rounds, regardless of seed.

This year, that led to an unexpected situation with 15 of the 16 sub-regional sites having a tournament home team. That includes three No. 1 seeds and two No. 2 seeds, as well as lower seeds like Delaware (6), Texas Tech (7), Iowa (9) and St. John's (10).

A school can be a host two years in a row. McGraw said Notre Dame wanted to do it this year but missed the deadline for submitting the requisite paperwork.

There was just one neutral site left — Columbus, Ohio — when the committee sat down to create the bracket.

Division I committee chairperson Carolayne Henry, a senior associate commissioner of the Mountain West Conference, said in a telephone interview that putting Notre Dame in Columbus was impossible because of other bracketing guidelines:

•The committee will try to prevent meetings between teams from the same conference before the regional finals.

•Teams should play as close to home as possible in the sub-regional rounds.

•Nos. 1-through-4 seeds cannot be moved up or down in the seeding for the benefit of bracketing.

•Teams on seed lines 5-though-16 can be moved up or down one spot.

The parameters can make bracketing like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle blindfolded.

"I understand folks' concern, but we could not make it work (to have Notre Dame in Columbus)," Henry said.

So the Irish (31-1) open against 16th-seed Tennessee-Martin (19-14) Sunday in Iowa City. The winner meets either Miami or Iowa on Tuesday.

Going into this tournament, nine of the 16 No. 1 seeds since 2009 have played the opening rounds on their home court, and all have advanced to regionals. Six of the other seven also made the regional round.

The lone No. 1 loser, Duke, also was the only one to face a second-round game on the opponents' home court, where it lost to Michigan State in 2009.

But given that a No. 1 seed meets a No. 8 or No. 9 in the second round, and given the huge talent gap between those levels that still exists in the women's college game, the top seed should have little to fear from home-court disadvantage.

In the past 10 tournaments, there have been 44 games with a higher-seeded team playing on the lower-seeded team's home court. In 18, the lower-seeded team has won, with No. 2 seeds and No. 3 seeds each losing twice.

Sites for the 2014 tournament have yet to be selected. Henry said the idea of returning to the old system of awarding sites based on seed is "open to discussion."

"We are evolving as a sport, and I would like to see us continue to evolve," she said. "I can see what the advantages and disadvantages are (with the current system). We want to do everything we can to make our tournament better."

phersh@tribune.com

Twitter @olyphil

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