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Women's hoops tourney is tough event to tweak

Around this time every year, the powers that be in the NCAA contemplate what to do about women's basketball.

The NCAA has sponsored a women's national championship since 1982, and for the last 25 years the tournament has run concurrently with the men's.

And every year the women's basketball committee ponders whether that's the best thing for the game.

While there have been some changes to the tournament format -- most notably going to predetermined sites for first- and second-round games a few years ago -- the road to the Women's Final Four has stayed basically the same.

The latest rounds of proposals that were discussed at the Final Four in Cleveland centered on two major changes -- moving the tournament a week later to avoid as much conflict with the men's tournament as possible, and returning to the format where the top 16 teams host first- and second-round games in hopes of steadily increasing early round and regional attendance.

For the record, the Final Four has sold out 16 times -- 15 straight. The championship weekend clearly has taken hold as one of the premier women's sporting events in American society.

The struggles to draw in the early rounds aren't unique to women's basketball. Men's college hockey suffers the same problem, routinely selling out the Frozen Four but struggling to fill seats at predetermined regional sites, particularly when desired teams don't make it to the tournament field. (This year's Rochester regional drew fewer than 4,000 fans in both of its two nights.)

But growing the game of women's basketball involves not just upping attendance but creating an atmosphere of excitement, energy and importance in the arena that translates to a television audience.

Opening-round games at traditional powerhouses, including but not limited to Connecticut, Tennessee, LSU and North Carolina, would help assure healthy attendance.

But if we revert to the home-court advantage for the opening games, will we be sacrificing quality basketball for attendance and appearance? Would Marist have been able to knock off Ohio State if the first-round game was played in Columbus instead of Stanford? Certainly mid-major schools, the Cinderellas of the ball, benefit from neutral (even semi-neutral) predetermined first-round sites.

Maybe the better way to go is to have the same predetermined sites for the opening rounds and the regionals for five years, allowing fan interest to develop and grow. The NCAA has done what it calls "pilot programs" with just such a setup with the Greensboro regional in hopes of creating a steady attendance. Greensboro hosted a regional in 2007 and will again in 2008 but a consistent predetermined site setup is out of the question until after 2010.

As far as moving the tournament dates, it's worthy of exploration. After all, how many families with young children -- one of women's basketball's core audiences -- stay up to watch a Tuesday night tipoff at 8:30 p.m.? Moving it out of the same weekend as the men's game would allow the women's game to stand on its own. Of course, a week later puts the women's tournament in the middle of The Masters, the start of baseball season and the Frozen Four. So much for increasing media exposure of your game.

In addition, moving the NCAA Tournament has a ripple effect -- it would impact conference tournaments (particularly those like the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, which hosts the men's and women's at the same time and same site) along with other calendar issues like first dates of practice, first dates of games and the entire recruiting calendar.

It's a difficult balancing act, particularly when you consider how good ESPN has been to women's basketball and the demands that relationship puts on the tournament from a scheduling standpoint. How do you increase attendance and increase media coverage and cater to your core audiences and create more women's college basketball fans and keep the best interests of the student-athletes in mind?

If you have any suggestions, send them the NCAA's way.

"We are in the business of wanting to accept any and all creative ideas for what we can do better for our game," said Judy Southard, chair of the NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Committee. "And I told the coaches . . . come to us with whatever idea you have. It may seem like it's off the charts, but we will sit down and we will talk about it. Because what we want to do is, and it's trite, I said it over and over, we want to grow our game."

Neutral, or semi-neutral, sites that are predetermined for a number of years will serve to help grow attendence numbers and preserve the ability of the mid-major schools to pull off the upset -- which is what the casual fan wants to see in the first place. Significantly altering the calendar may hurt, more than help, in the long run considering the cluttered sports media landscape. Instead, the NCAA should consider an early Sunday night tipoff for the championship game to allow the college hoopla excitement for both genders to feed off each other.

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>Maloney, Eagan cited

Buffalo State's Gail F. Maloney and Arlene Eagan are listed among the 126 coaches and 209 current and former student-athletes in the book "NCAA Women's Basketball Finest," published by the NCAA in conjunction with the organization's 25th anniversary of sponsoring women's championships.

Maloney mentored the Bengals to a .708 winning percentage through 21 seasons and compiled a 374-154 record.

Eagan, a Division III First Team All-American in 1990 and 1991, is the school's all-time leading scorer with 1,669 points, the top rebounder with 1,419, and holds the records for most steals (364) and blocked shots (158).

e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com

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>Top performers

* Canisius freshman synchronized swimmer Natalia Tarasova won the "A" elements event at the U.S. Collegiate Nationals. She finished with 84.114 points. In the solo competition, she was second, which tied for the best finish ever in Canisius history.

* University at Albany's Frank Resetarits (Hamburg) was named the America East Conference Player of the Week in men's lacrosse for the fourth time this season. The senior attackman leads the conference in scoring with 20 goals and 14 assists, moved into second place on the school's career goals list with 122 and is fourth in assists (74).

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