Huskies Are Moving Off Easy Street, Road To Final Four Will No Longer Go Through Storrs
Storrs - 11/01/13 - UConn and Gannon women's teams stretch out before the game at Gampel Pavilion Friday night. BRAD HORRIGAN | firstname.lastname@example.org (Brad Horrigan / Hartford Courant / November 1, 2013)
Auriemma's elixir has transformed UConn into a self-perpetuating machine that sustains not only itself but much of the sport.
One of the ways it supports women's basketball is with the money generated from a fan base that has been asked to shore up, almost singularly, Big East championships and NCAA subregionals and regional finals for two decades.
But now, inspired by the massive white paper compiled by Val Ackerman, commissioner of the new Big East, the NCAA women's basketball committee wants the game to grow beyond safe borders.
And the first step, introduced this season, is the staging of its four regional finals in places with no direct connection to the UConn program.
“Val's report gave us a perfect snapshot of where we are as a game,” said Danielle Donehew, associate commissioner for women's basketball in the American Athletic Conference. “And it gave us ideas for growth and enhancement. … The [NCAA] Tournament is our showcase, and it's important to us all that we protect that asset, the visible celebration of our game.”
After years of playing many of its most important games on virtual home floors, the Huskies will be required to win far from home to get to future Final Fours.
“Yeah, we've had it somewhat easy over the last few years. But for us, I don't think it's going to really matter,” UConn senior Stefanie Dolson said. “Our fans will likely travel no matter where we are. And our coaches have always emphasized preparing to play on the road in the regular season so we are prepared in case something like that happens in the tournament.”
UConn will host first- and second-round games at Gampel Pavilion this season. But after that, the Huskies will be assigned to Lincoln, Neb., Louisville, Ky., Palo Alto, Calif., or South Bend, Ind., for potential Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games.
“When [coach Jeff Walz] told us that the NCAA decided to host a regional at Louisville, it gave our team a lot of extra motivation to succeed,” said Louisville junior forward Sara Hammond. “We are striving to be a top-four seed this season so that we are able to have the chance to play in front of our fans, where we are comfortable.”
Theoretically, should UConn be a No. 1 seed again this season — along with Notre Dame, Stanford and Louisville — it would be sent to Nebraska. If UConn is a 1-seed and Notre Dame, Stanford and Louisville are not, the Huskies could be sent anywhere the NCAA desires.
“There has been concern from the coaches about playing regionals on campus sites,” Donehew said. “The women's basketball committee is conscious of the concern. But in this case [for 2014], we had to make a decision based on where we were [developmentally] this season. And it made the best decision possible, based on the information it was given.”
Auriemma, aware of the competitive advantage the Huskies have enjoyed in the Big East tournament and NCAAs, has made it clear he does not advocate a team playing at home in the regionals.
“To have a game that is being played for the right to go to the Final Four [on your home floor], I just don't think it's right,” he said.
In the past, UConn has vaulted to Final Fours from the following regional sites: 1995, Gampel Pavilion; 1996, Rosemont, Ill.; 2000, Philadelphia; 2001, Pittsburgh; 2002, Milwaukee; 2003, Dayton, Ohio; 2004, Hartford; 2008, Greensboro, N.C.; 2009, Trenton, N.J.; 2010, Dayton; 2011, Philadelphia; 2012, Kingston, R.I.; and 2013, Bridgeport.
Only once during that time were the Huskies not able to play at least two of their first four tournament games in Connecticut. In 2010, the second of their consecutive undefeated seasons, UConn played first- and second-round games in Norfolk, Va., before advancing to the Final Four in Dayton.
“The committee continues to look for ways to create a better in-arena atmosphere for our student athletes, improve attendance and enhance the broadcast look of the games,” said Carolayne Henry, chair of the Division I women's basketball committee and senior associate commissioner of the Mountain West Conference.
The NCAA essentially relented this season, granting regionals to four perennial powerhouses: Notre Dame, Stanford, Nebraska and Louisville. But what it wants to create, beginning in 2015, is a tournament free of partisan placement.
“We'd like to have three cities host the event on a rotating basis for a three-year period, with two super-regionals [of eight teams each] leading into the Final Four,” Donehew said. “We believe that idea has a lot of merit and has a lot of support. … We know the coaches are in favor of assigning regionals to neutral sites, and we are listening to them.”
For that to happen, the NCAA will need cities not closely affiliated or identified with power programs to want to host future events in the manner Omaha does for baseball's College World Series or Oklahoma City with softball.
“I hope that day is coming,” South Florida coach Jose Fernandez said. “Just think of the grass-roots marketing and the sponsorships the sport could generate.”