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March 18, 2013

Morris: Parity still a work in progress for NCAA women’s tourney

THE STATE OF women’s college basketball is about where the men’s game was three or four decades ago. A handful of teams are legitimate contenders for the national championship. Then there is the remainder of the field.

THE STATE OF women’s college basketball is about where the men’s game was three or four decades ago. A handful of teams are legitimate contenders for the national championship. Then there is the remainder of the field.

It is no knock on the women’s game. It is just the truth. Just as it took a couple of decades for the men’s game to climb out of the long shadow of the UCLA dynasty, it will take time for the women’s game to dethrone the Connecticut and Tennessee dynasties.

There is every reason to believe it will happen as programs such as South Carolina, Kentucky, Maryland, Duke, Texas A&M and Notre Dame make more of a commitment to the women’s game.

“We’re seeing the middle of the pack moving up,” USC coach Dawn Staley said. “You’re seeing programs like ours making huge strides in the NCAA tournament.”

Last year, Staley led USC to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2003, and the fifth-seeded Gamecocks defeated Eastern Michigan and Purdue before falling to top-seeded Stanford in the Fresno Regional semifinals.

The women’s tournament is similarly structured to the way the men’s tournament once was — there is a huge built-in advantage for higher-seeded teams. The women’s tournament continues to play first- and second-round games on home courts before moving to neutral sites for rounds three and four.

Through most of UCLA’s run of 10 national championships in 12 seasons from 1964 through 1975, the tournament brackets were arranged on a regional basis. The idea was to keep teams closer to home to enhance the potential for better attendance.

Because there were few strong teams in the West, UCLA received what amounted to an annual free pass to the Final Four. In 1967, UCLA defeated Wyoming and Pacific to reach the Final Four. The following two years, the early opponents were the same New Mexico State and Santa Clara clubs.

As the game reached a broader audience — and television dollars began to flow to the NCAA — a seeding system replaced the old region format. Playing on home courts was eliminated from the bracketing.

Higher-seeded teams generally still advance in the men’s tournament, but not because of a home-court or regional advantage.

More and more programs aim to get in on the NCAA tournament financial pie, so they have made more of a commitment to the men’s game. With each passing season, the term “mid-major” to describe programs is being eliminated. Gonzaga, once considered a mid-major program, earned a No. 1 seed this season. George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth and Butler have been to Final Fours in recent seasons.

The women’s game is nowhere near that point — yet.

Let’s face it, if you are the gambling sort, some of the safest bets in all of sports can be made in women’s basketball. Filling out a women’s bracket does not take a lot of thought or skill. Just advance all the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds to the quarterfinals, then sort it out from there.

A season ago, all four number-one seeded teams — Baylor, Connecticut, Notre Dame and Stanford — advanced to the Final Four after all four defeated No. 2-seeded teams in the regional finals. Since seeding began for the 1996 women’s tournament, 77 percent of the Final Four teams have been either No. 1 or No. 2 seeds.

Of the 68 teams that have reached the Final Four since 1996, a whopping 57 percent have been No. 1 seeds. Only once — Tennessee as a No. 3-seed in 1997 — has a No. 1 or No. 2 seed not won the national championship.

In the history of the tournament since seeding, four long shots have reached the Final Four, and all lost in the semifinals. Fifth-seeded Southwest Missouri State made it in 2001, sixth-seeded Notre Dame in 1997, seventh-seeded Minnesota in 2004 and ninth-seeded Arkansas in 1998.

Those are flukes. Traditionally, the tradition-rich programs not only reach the Final Four but also win the national championship. The NCAA has been crowning a national champion in women’s basketball since 1982. Of the 31 tournaments since, Tennessee (eight) and Connecticut (seven) have combined to win nearly half.

Texas A&M and Baylor have captured the past two national titles, and that is as good a sign as any that the women’s game gradually is evolving into one that includes more parity.

With the likes of USC and Kentucky and Notre Dame and Duke making more of a commitment to their respective women’s programs, the tournament eventually will evolve to be more like the men’s tournament.

One day, the women’s tournament will be as unpredictable as the men’s tournament. That took a long, long time to happen on the men’s side. It likely will take just as long on the women’s side.

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