March 25, 2011 in Sports

Selection committee gave Gonzaga’s women big advantage

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So how cool is it that the Gonzaga Bulldogs not only won their first two games of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament – both wildly entertaining affairs on their own floor in front of exuberant, sellouts crowds – and now get another here in Spokane?

Way cool if you’re the Zags. Nearly as cool if you’re part of the swelling audience for the women’s team. And pretty damned cool for the partners in the tournament’s Spokane Regional – host Washington State, the Spokane Arena and the NCAA – which will enjoy brisk ticket business now that the city has a dog in the hunt.

If you’re Louisville – and, potentially, Stanford or North Carolina, or even just an advocate of competitive principle – not so much.

Hello. Mr. Cranky here to siphon the sunshine out of a giddy civic moment.

Usually, that would be the job of the NCAA, but apparently those folks were occupied elsewhere when the train pulled out of Seeding and Placement Station.

What’s the big deal?

Just this: The women’s committee has set the table for a No. 11 seed having what amounts to four home games en route to the Final Four.

Imagine your 8-year-old’s lemonade stand getting the only vendor spot on Spokane Falls Boulevard on a sizzling Hoopfest Saturday. It’s that kind of windfall.

If such a thing had come up on the men’s bracket, Jay Bilas’ head would have exploded on national TV last week. Which might have been the One Shining Moment to end all shining moments.

Yes, the Zags would have to overcome the Nos. 6, 3, 7 and, presumably, 1 seeds in the region to do it. And no matter how large or supportive the crowd, no one with a ticket is going to make a basket or block a shot. It would be a feat both impressive and admirable, on any floor.

But this week, that floor should be in Dallas or Dayton, not Spokane.

Bracketing is not work to be envied, and the women’s committee has an extra implied mandate – fill the seats – that comes from both the accountants and the participants.

“Coaches and student-athletes have spoken quite loudly that they want to play in buildings with atmosphere,” said Heather Gores, a Gonzaga associate athletic director in her fourth year on the committee. “We went away from eight (first-round) sites to 16 to grow the audiences on campuses, because the eight sites weren’t drawing well.”

So you see a lot traditional powers – schools where the women’s game has a handhold – hosting the early rounds almost every year: Tennessee, UConn, Stanford, Maryland. Gonzaga’s growing constituency earned it inclusion in the rotation – but it wasn’t very discerning to start it in a year Spokane was also set to host a regional.

In fact, what’s been done here is unprecedented. Never, since the women’s tournament went to 64 teams in 1994, has a double-digit seed been afforded the opportunity to play four games at home. New Mexico (11 in 2006) and Cincinnati (12 in 1999) were in regional brackets that terminated in their towns, but lost at subregionals elsewhere. In 1996, No. 11 Stephen F. Austin actually engineered two upsets at Clemson to make the Nacogdoches regional, where it lost to second-seeded Georgia.

So, no, it isn’t always about the home floor. And sometimes it’s very much about it.

“When you’re starting to feel fatigue, that adrenaline from the crowd helps,” Gonzaga’s Courtney Vandersloot said after the second-rounder thriller over UCLA. “The last 20 minutes of the game you don’t even feel tired because you’re so amped by that crowd.”

Well, double that on Saturday.

Sure, there have been years when UConn and Tennessee didn’t leave their states to reach the Final Four – which is no good, either – and you think, hooray, the little guy finally catches a break. But this is no different than Whitworth’s men being the nation’s No. 1 overall seed in the Division III tournament and getting shipped to some other team’s gym in Ohio, or GU’s men traipsing cross country in 2008 to play double-digit Davidson two hours from its campus.

If you’re seeding tournaments at all, then it has to be for more than just the right to wear the whites. The higher seed doesn’t necessarily deserve an advantage; just don’t put it at an epic disadvantage.

“When we can accommodate without compromising the bracket,” Gores said, “and have a closer geographic fit that helps with attendance, I think it’s a win-win.”

If it’s a win-win for the Zags this weekend, it won’t lessen the achievement in the slightest. Game’s still won the floor, and accomplished teams will have to be beaten.

But this one does compromise the bracket. Not so cool.


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