The NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament starts Saturday, and I have a problem with that.
The women’s tournament is easily the third-best collegiate sporting event, surpassed only by football and men’s hoops. While pundits love to debate the viability of the WNBA (and those who wish it would go away try to ignore that attendance was up 18 percent last season), no one doubts the viability of women’s college hoops. A shot of women’s college hoops is one of the first clips in the montage in the introduction for ESPN’s Sportscenter for good reason. Several women’s college games have outdrawn most of the NBA telecasts.
So what’s the problem?
The tournament is too big and that saps some of the drama. The women’s field is 64 teams, which in the name of equality seems right since the men’s field is 65. But there’s a key difference. The men’s field has good reason to be that size. In this year’s men’s tournament, there are 10 teams with legitimate championship dreams, and there are about 15 more that harbor real chances of making the Final Four in Detroit. Most of the other 40 teams figure that they could make their mark by scoring a significant upset. There are only a few teams that might be described as filler.
The men’s tournament has become a marketing juggernaut and an international event precisely because the opening rounds deliver riveting drama. The women’s tournament has exactly that level of competition and excitement, but it starts later in the playoffs, usually within the round of 16. The women’s field was expanded with the idea that if you build it, they will come. Yet the men’s field was expanded because in every previous size, deserving teams kept getting left out. (And a few fans of St. Mary’s might argue that some worthy teams still don’t get in.) The number of quality women’s teams in NCAA has grown substantially during the last 10 years, but it isn’t so great that a championship tournament field needs 64 teams to give everyone a fair shake.
I think the women’s tournament would do itself a favor by slashing the field to 40 teams. The top two seeded teams in each of the four regionals would get a bye into the round of 16, and the other 32 teams would play on Saturday through Tuesday for the right to join them at the regional round. A smaller championship tournament would heighten the drama of the regular season and the conference tournaments. The bye weeks would make top seeds even that much more valuable, and the first round would feature more quality matchups. In other words, there would be much more drama that is accessible to the average sports fan in the preliminaries of the tournament, and it would ramp up an even larger audience for the big events down the road.
For my money, the drama of this year’s tournament is somewhat different than who will win it all. The University of Connecticut Huskies team is 33-0, and it’s not as if they scheduled Yale and Wesleyan five times each. In their six games against ranked opponents, they won by an average of 34.6 points. They have yet to win by fewer than 10 points all season. The team is led by sophomore forward Maya Moore, a near-certain choice to be Player of the Year, and this tournament should function as her introduction to the national stage as the game’s best athlete.
UConn will have to win six more teams to claim a title, but in reality they’re playing for something much larger, to rank among the greatest teams of all time. The Huskies (I don’t generally root for UConn, but I like the fact that there is no “Lady” in front of their team nickname) won’t be judged their wins but rather how dominant their wins are. Are they as good as the Swin Cash-Sue Bird or Rebecca Lobo-Jamelle Elliot versions of the Huskies? Each of those title teams went undefeated as did the Chamique Holdsclaw-Tamika Catchings-Semeka Randall University of Tennessee team.
That’s the question of this tournament. While I might wish for something more competitive in the moment, imagining this UConn team in a bracket with those teams will be a worthy daydream.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.