Dawn Staley was miffed, as she should have been, although the news was expected. As I pointed out last week, Notre Dame winning the ACC tournament cemented what we all knew was likely.
Which meant for the second straight year, the Fighting Irish are headed to Lexington for the NCAA Regionals while the Gamecocks are the odd women out. At least this time, they won’t have to face a blizzard in South Dakota. They just have to go across the country for their third and fourth-round games instead of within the same time zone, within the conference borders.
Stockton, California. Home of the University of the Pacific. The Oakland A’s Single-A Advanced club plays there.
I’m sure it’s a lovely location and arena and the hosts will be terrific. The folks in Sioux Falls, S.D., last year were wonderful. It’s just I could never get over the nagging question, “Why in the hell is the No. 2 overall seed here, instead of as close to its home as possible?”
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The NCAA had its answers. They prefer to have teams drive to regionals, because this is an attendance-based tournament (hence, why there’s always a regional in New York or Connecticut to take advantage of UConn). Notre Dame was a drive to Lexington (and USC isn’t, according to their logic) and Dallas was a drive from Baylor, so USC had nowhere else to go.
Now, the NCAA has never been known to follow its own precedent. I suppose that’s why some still held out hope for this year despite it being the same three teams in the same three regions.
Then the announcement comes out and as expected, USC is in Stockton as the No. 1 seed. That was understood, if not readily accepted. Then, to make it worse, the selection committee chair says Baylor went to Oklahoma City, a drive from its campus and only a 90-minute flight from Atlanta for USC fans, because of ticket consideration.
You don’t think USC fans would go to Lexington after leading the country in attendance the past three years? You don’t think there are more Notre Dame fans in California, as it’s a worldwide brand, than USC fans? And you’re doing favors for Baylor?
We talked about this last week. It was probably better to lose in Greenville to be a No. 2 seed in Lexington than win and be a No. 1 seed in Stockton. But what was Staley supposed to do – tell her team to lose?
Staley was chewing nails afterward and said she looked forward to talking with the committee, perhaps getting some changes for next year. Perhaps as Olympic coach now, she’ll get them.
I look at the regional lineup for next year – Albany, Kansas City, Lexington and Spokane – and think it’s going to be awfully difficult not to be visiting Gonzaga next season. USC isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and neither are UConn, Notre Dame or Baylor.
The only potential silver lining in this is they’ll be announcing 2019-22 regional hosts any day now. So with the Gamecocks becoming one of the nation’s elite teams over the past four years and poised to stay there, maybe the NCAA will award a regional within Georgia, Florida or Tennessee for USC to keep an eye on.
And it’s time for me to dance
I get to go this time?
Stop playin.’ Don’t jinx it. There could be a way for the NCAA to take it back, couldn’t there? The program I cover has had so much thrown at it in the last 44 years it’s like the arena sits on a graveyard of black cats, with the windows recycled from broken mirrors.
No, there it is, on TV and Twitter and in the mouths of broadcasters and on computer screens. “South Carolina,” it says right there, as one of the 68 teams in the 2017 NCAA tournament, and that means I, after 21 years, get to go with them.
They all told me it’s not that big a deal, the same game I’ve seen a lifetime of in every rickety high-school gym to Rupp Arena. The old guys who once went to 18 straight Final Fours tell me it’s gotten so commercialized that it’s lost what was once special.
I have no basis for comparison, and wouldn’t care if I did. Over half my life I’ve waited to be there, covering the best sporting event there is, and after so many chances were rudely snatched away, some at the absolute zero-hour last-second nth degree, I’m going.
I get to see the Princeton offense and Dunk City and Press Virginia. I get to hear “Rock Chalk Jayhawk!” and “One Shining Moment” and “There’s the pass to Laettner … puts it up … YESSSSSSSSS!”
I get to watch the George Masons and Butlers and VCUs keep on winning. I get to see March Madness perhaps give a title to the underdog, like the Cardiac Pack and Villanova ’85 and Danny and the Miracles. The vision of Bo Kimble shooting left-handed in memory of Hank Gathers and Indiana’s warmup pants and the St. Joe’s Hawk constantly flapping his wings will all flash through my head when I’m sitting down, at last, on an NCAA tournament press row.
It won’t be Cameron or Pauley or the Palestra or Hinkle, but it’s the tournament. And I’ll be there.
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