Sunday, March 16, 2008

Geography could decide bracket for Lady Vols

Summitt: Fans in stands important

The Tennessee women's basketball team was on the bus ride home from the SEC tournament last week and Pat Summitt already was thinking about the next tournament.

The Lady Vols coach ought to know better, especially when it comes to filling out an NCAA bracket and anticipating a tournament itinerary for her team.

"I've been in it long enough to know I don't know,'' Summitt said. "I'm guessing if I'm predicting something."

She and everyone will know when the 64-team field is unveiled on EPSN, beginning at 7 p.m. Monday. As usual, the team will gather at Summitt's home for the occasion.

Summitt's best guess might be anticipating geography as being the primary NCAA consideration.

"It's putting people in the stands,'' she said. "Last year it became very clear we had a lot of empty gyms, or sparse crowds.

"I think for our game it's going to be important to keep teams within their region so their fans can travel."

This isn't just Summitt talking. North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell and Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, among others, weighed in on attendance during last season's tournament.

Since then the Division I women's basketball committee has opted to scrap sending eight teams to one site for first- and second-round games and next season return to 16 pre-determined sites for the opening two rounds. That format was last used in 2004, the year in which a record 214,290 fans (6,696 average) attended first- and second-round games.

Tennessee is scheduled to be a host for the opening two rounds in 2010.

The thinking behind the present format, which borrowed from the men's tournament, was to take a team like Tennessee off its home court and create a more neutral environment. It also was intended to save on everything from administration costs to production expenditures for ESPN, which telecasts the entire tournament.

What's good for neutrality and economics hasn't been good for the turnstiles. Attendance has dropped since the format was adopted in 2005.

A foursome of George Washington, Boise State, Texas A&M and Texas-Arlington was shipped to Los Angeles last season. They attracted 878 fans for an opening session of games played in a 10,280-seat arena.

"You don't know unless you experiment and we did,'' Summitt said. "It's not been favorable for the attendance. And all these games are on TV. So I think it's important as we promote our game that we promote a game where we have people in the stands and we have the kind of support our teams deserve."

In the meantime, Tennessee's closest possible destinations for first- and second-round games this season are West Lafayette, Ind., and Norfolk, Va.

Predicting a regional site puts a real strain on the geography consideration. Connecticut, North Carolina and Tennessee are likely No. 1 seeds. But there's not enough destinations in their vicinity to accommodate all three.

A team is going to be routed through the Midwest Regional in Oklahoma City. As for which team, it's anyone's guess.

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