Some thoughts on the women’s NCAA tournament
Before we get started on the Elite Eight round of the men’s tournament tonight, I think it’s appropriate to take a little trip to the women’s bracket and assess how things are going over there. It looks like I’m going to end up writing 67 Important Observations about the men’s tournament, plus several other blog posts, so I’m pretty sure Title IX requires me to at least make one post about the women’s basketball action.
To be open, I haven’t watched one game of women’s college ball this season, tournament
or otherwise. I doubt many people have. The women’s game just isn’t as exciting. It has something to do with the style of play and it has something to do with the overall athletic abilities of men and women, but mostly it has to do with the drastic difference between the elite-level female basketball players and the rest of the field. In both the men’s and women’s game, there are players who are just better than everyone else. I can’t fault the women’s game for having some great players. My problem isn’t even in things like overall lower shooting percentages or higher turnover rates. But I feel like in general, the women’s game lacks a lot of the interest of the men’s game because the difference between the elite players and the rest of the players is gigantic.
And the same is true for the teams. I know I’m not the only person who feels like every year, before the season even starts, the number of teams that can possibly win the tournament is fewer than 10. U-Conn, Tennessee, Stanford, and Baylor are unsurprisingly this year’s top seeds; the usual suspects in the women’s game are dominant every season. The four teams mentioned above lost only seven combined games this year, and four of those losses were to other teams in that group. The women’s game has a handful of teams that would go undefeated every year if they didn’t have to play each other. In fact, since 1987, those four teams have won 18 of the 23 tournaments. They are just that much better than the rest of the teams in the field.
This year’s tournament has proven exactly that. In the first round, Stanford won by 27, Baylor and U-Conn won by 36, and Tennessee won by 65. Let me repeat that: Tennessee won an NCAA Tournament game by 65 points. And sure, these games were against 16-seeds, but the difference between the elite group of teams and the rest is too big to maker the game interesting. If you look at the 2-seeds, Notre Dame won in the first round by 13, Xavier won by 16, Texas A&M by 40 and Duke by 45. In the second round, the 1- and 2-seeds won 8 games by an average of more than 15 points. That’s as far as the tournament has gone to date (although the first game of the Sweet 16 is currently under way, with Notre Dame beating Oklahoma by 25), but you have to think the NCAA would maybe be considering ways to make this tournament more interesting. That’s where I come in.
Here’s my suggestion for the women’s tournament: Take the handful of teams at the top and have them all play each other once. An eight-team round robin tournament could be played in exactly the same number of days as the men’s tournament is played now (three games per team across six days the first week, two games per team across four days in the second and third weeks) and would make sure that no one has to turn off those huge blowouts. The game schedule and remaining games could even be moved around to get the most important games in the primest of tv times. Picking the actual 8 teams that make it could be based off rankings or conference tournaments winners/at-large bids. A selection committee that picked eight teams instead of 64 would work. They could even try a sort of BCS thing where the top eight teams make it into the tournament.
Not only would we not have to watch all the terrible games, but virtually all of the games would be close. It would be better for the image of the women’s game because television spectators would see the elite class of teams and athletes and not weekends full of enormous mismatches like the Tennessee-Stetson blowout (Stetson committed 18 fouls and made 12 shots). Sure, there won’t be Cinderella stories or upsets that crack the second page of the sports section, but at least the overall quality of basketball will be consistently solid, and maybe a chance in the structure would make the women’s tournament more newsworthy and maybe even watchable. Maybe.