The South Carolina women’s basketball team will find out its NCAA tournament destination on Monday.
The No. 8 Gamecocks don’t know where they’ll be sent, but they know where they won’t be going – Colonial Life Arena.
But change is on the horizon. Beginning next year, the NCAA is changing the women’s basketball tournament. Like the NCAA baseball tournament, host teams will be based on merit. If a team is one of the Top 16 seeds, it will host the first two rounds of the tournament.
For the Gamecocks, who have been denied hosting the tournament in each of the past three years because of the Confederate battle flag at the Statehouse, change is sweet relief. While USC has gone 3-1 in the past two years at West Lafayette, Ind., and Boulder, Colo., and is very likely to be the highest seed in its four-team pod on Monday, there’s no place like home.
“If your body of work says that you get to host the first and second round, I think that’s deserving,” coach Dawn Staley recently said. “Kudos to the change of the legislation to allow that to happen.”
The Gamecocks have been one of the best women’s teams over the past three seasons, taking another step this year with their first SEC regular-season championship, a Top-10 ranking and only four losses heading into the NCAA tournament. Yet, the NCAA deemed that any school in the state of South Carolina could not host basketball tournament games because of the flag.
In baseball, teams earn host sites during the year and are rewarded with home postseason games. That’s why USC and Clemson are able to host regionals anfd Super Regionals.
Basketball didn’t have any such stipulations. While USC’s men’s team wouldn’t play on its home court even if it made the NCAA tournament, CLA could not be used for other tournament games, which deprived the state of revenue. The women’s tournament, which has always factored in attendance and awarded sites to deserving teams, had no choice but to pass over USC.
In 2012, the Gamecocks went to West Lafayette and won two games anyway. Last year in Boulder, they lost in the second round to Kansas, which also knocked off host Colorado. Staley spoke about the unfairness of being sent on the road last year, when the Gamecocks were clearly good enough to host, and hoped it would change soon.
It came. When some coaches complained about the format of this year’s tournament – not only were 16 teams awarded host sites for the first two rounds, but Notre Dame, Nebraska, Stanford and Louisville were awarded host sites for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds – the NCAA decided to change it again for 2015. Hosts for the first two rounds will be awarded to teams that earn it during the regular season, and the next two rounds will be played at neutral sites – Albany, N.Y., Sacramento, Calif., Greensboro, N.C., and Oklahoma City.
Staley and the Gamecocks were ecstatic. They’ll have to go on the road this year, but next year, if they earn it, they can stay at home for the first two rounds.
“My understanding is it is a done deal,” USC athletic director Ray Tanner said. “I’m excited about it for our program because we’ve had a very, very good program. But I think it’s great for women’s basketball. I think it enhances greater interest, greater attendance. I think that’s part of the reason baseball went to it, because it generates great excitement.”
Tanner said there should be no further hiccups of the NCAA denying USC a host spot because of the flag. If it’s going to a baseball system, he said, it should be baseball rules.
“I wouldn’t think so,” he said. “I think this is an NCAA decision for women’s basketball and that’s what it’s all about. It has nothing to do with the other issues that have been discussed in the past.”
The previous system had teams bid for a host spot a year in advance. The problem was that a team might get a host site, then have an unexpected bad year and not make the tournament.
Only three teams that were awarded host sites this year won’t host, because they won’t qualify for the NCAA tournament. As a result, USC is likely to be sent to one of those three locations – Los Angeles (UCLA), Toledo, Ohio (Toledo) or Seattle (Washington).
The latest edition of ESPN’s Bracketology has the Gamecocks as a No. 2 seed in Toledo, playing 15-seed Albany, with Ohio natives Dayton and Bowling Green filling the four-team pod. The Toledo site is part of the South Bend regional, meaning that projected top seed Notre Dame would have to play its first two rounds on the road before returning home for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.
Tanner said the bidding process for next year would begin before the season or just after it starts, but he has no doubt Colonial Life will be approved.
“It’s long before your team would actually qualify,” Tanner said. “The venue, the seating, there’s a lot of components that go into it. You have to prove that you have the kind of facility that’s good for the game, and Colonial Life Arena would be.”
Then it will be up to the Gamecocks. USC only loses one senior and has signed the No. 4 recruiting class in the country. It’s also very much in the hunt to sign No. 1 national prospect A’ja Wilson.
Staley knew going into this year that USC wasn’t going to play at home. She was fine with it, since it wasn’t expected, and to win the national championship, USC was eventually going to have to win on somebody else’s floor.
But getting to play at home next year can’t be anything but good. Colonial Life Arena hosted the second and third-largest crowds for a women’s game in its history during USC’s last two home games this season.
“Obviously, they will us to wins,” Staley said. “That’s the most important thing – the home-court advantage we gain from people being in the stands. We had to open the upper decks. When that happens, it’s a beautiful thing.”