By DOUG FEINBERG

AP Sports Writer

Even with attendance down, the NCAA has reason to be happy with the expansion back to 16 sites in the women’s tournament. It’s still a work in progress though, and there are a few kinks that need to be ironed out. Just ask the top seeded coaches who lost on their opponents’ home court.

“I think for the most part our first-round sites have created that championship atmosphere that we wanted and we have to consider the economic times we’re in,” said Sue Donohoe, who is the NCAAs vice president for Division I women’s basketball. “We’re pleased right now.”

The NCAA women’s committee decided to switch back to 16 predetermined sites for this season’s tournament after going with only eight sites the previous few years. The first two rounds drew an average of 4,100 people, down from last season’s 5,800. The average was the second-lowest mark since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1994.

Still, it’s important to realize that last season seven of the eight sites had host teams playing. The eighth was Bridgeport, Conn – a short trip from Storrs for Huskies fans.

This season six of the 16 sites didn’t have host teams, including Los Angeles which drew only 686 fans for the second-round game between California and Virginia.

“Looking at the sites that played in the first round we got really good crowds,” Donohoe said. “We had some sites that didn’t have some hosts that didn’t have as good attendance but you’ll always have that.”

Maryland was the top draw with over 10,000 fans coming out each night to see their Terrapins play.

“You have to be realistic,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. “They’ve tried to do neutral courts and it hasn’t worked out yet for the women. Obviously, in an ideal, perfect situation, that would be the most fair, be the most equitable, but we wouldn’t be playing in front of what you saw tonight.”

Frese even went out and bought pizza for the first 100 or so students who showed up for the games. At LSU, a few coaches bought hot dogs and sodas for students to take in the Tigers’ second-round game against Louisville.

Not every coach was thrilled having to play an opponent on its home court. Florida had to face UConn in Gampel Pavilion in the second round Tuesday in front of 8,000 fans. Although it probably wouldn’t have mattered where the two teams met the way the Huskies have played all season, Gators coach Amanda Butler didn’t think it was completely fair, but understood the reasons for it.

“We lost on UConn’s floor. Auburn lost on Rutgers floor. Homecourt advantage is very strong,” she said. “Those are the factors that we’re dealing with that are out of our control. That’s what’s best for the game right now. Attendance is where it needs to be.”

While top seeds Maryland and UConn got to host games, the other two No. 1s had to go on the road to hostile environments. Sooners coach Sherri Coale was prepared for the road games having sat through the NCAAs mock bracket seminar in early February where that specific example came up with her top-ranked Sooners having to play the first two rounds on an opponent’s home court.

“I went right back to my team in February and told them that there was a good chance we might have to play on someone else’s floor in the first two rounds,” Coale said. “Look if you’re a top seed you should be able to win on the road and it shouldn’t matter where you play.”

Oklahoma didn’t have to face host Iowa, which lost in the first round to Georgia Tech.

Duke wasn’t so lucky meeting Michigan State in the second round. It didn’t help the Blue Devils that coach Joanne P. McCallie bolted from Michigan State two years ago to take the Duke job, further firing up the Spartans fans.

There isn’t a perfect solution. Since the field expanded, the NCAA has played around with different formats. They’ve tried having the higher seed host, giving the opening two rounds to the top four seeds in each region, playing in only eight sites instead of 16, and finally – for the second time now – playing in 16 predetermined sites.

The NCAAs are locked into 16 sites next season and will discuss bids for future tournaments this summer and next fall. Donohoe said there is no immediate thoughts of further tweaking the format.

“There’s no timetable on it,” she said. “When we made the decision to go the eight-team format we said let’s take a risk, let’s see if it works. If it doesn’t we’ll say it didn’t work and we’ll try something different. It’s the same with this. We think it’s a good format right now, if not, we’ll look at it and rework it and that’s what you have to do. You got to take some risk to grow the game.”



AP Sports Writer Howard Fendrich in College Park, Md., contributed to this report.

AP-ES-03-26-09 1916EDT


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