There was plenty of criticism in 2021 when the San Antonio area was the single-site host of the NCAA women’s tournament during the coronavirus pandemic. But there was one thing that left many optimistic about the future: the atmosphere created by having all of the teams in one city.
The NCAA had already announced the year before that the 2023 Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds would be played at a pair of locations instead of the typical four regional sites. That change goes into effect in two weeks when Seattle and Greenville, S.C., host eight teams apiece before Dallas stages the Final Four.
“It’s kind of like mini-Final Fours,” said Lisa Peterson, chair of the Division I women’s basketball committee. “The really cool thing was having everybody there [in San Antonio]. And so that was where we knew that this would be a really great experience for all the student-athletes and teams and, also, the fans. You will know that there is a big women’s basketball tournament that’s happening there.”
The tournament begins with the play-in games Wednesday and Thursday, the first round Friday and Saturday and the second round Sunday and next Monday. The top 16 seeds host those first two rounds before teams advance to the pair of regional sites. The Sweet 16 is March 24 and 25, with the Elite Eight set for March 26 and 27. The national semifinals are March 31, and the title game is April 2.
The two new sites should thrive even more than 2021 with teams and fans able to move freely, unlike with the extreme restrictions in San Antonio because of the pandemic. Maryland Coach Brenda Frese compared it to the format of the College World Series.
“Having lived it through San Antonio, I loved it,” Frese said. “It’s a pretty cool thing to have everybody there, in your sport and in your game. It’s definitely going to be exciting to see what it looks like.”
There has been concern in past years that the regional sites gave too much of an advantage to high seeds that get to play close to home in arenas filled with their fans. Connecticut, for example, came out of the Bridgeport (Conn.) Region in 2022 to advance to the Final Four — after doing the same in 2013, 2016 and 2017.
Former Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw tweeted about the subject last March.
“But could we talk about regionals???” she wrote. “They are supposed to be at neutral sites. I know the attendance hasn’t been great so let’s try something new — but holding a regional in someone’s backyard every year??? That has to change.”
The two-site regional is supposed to address that, though Greenville is in the home state of defending national champion South Carolina.
“It starts to make sense to start having more neutral environments, locations,” Frese said. “Definitely thinking if it’s more neutral, although I don’t feel like South Carolina is, but I definitely think for a lot of other teams it’ll be a good thing.”
Nothing is perfect, however, and the two coastal sites will make for long trips for some teams and fans. It is possible for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed from one side of the country to be forced to travel to the opposite end for the regional round, where in the past there would have been options closer to home.
“It’s not like teams don’t travel far,” Peterson said. “It just might be some teams that don’t typically travel very far. Our most important thing is our student experience. And I think that they’ll really feel a very championship-level experience at the games, in the city, around the hotel — all of that sort of stuff.”
There were well-documented issues in San Antonio with subpar facilities such as the weight room, but Maryland first-team all-Big Ten guard Diamond Miller remembers seeing opposing teams and even friends around the facilities. There was catching up with people — and some good-natured ribbing.
“It reminds me of AAU, especially when you see all these teams walking by, all wearing the same clothes and stuff,” Miller said with a smile. “You’re like, ‘They think they’re going to beat us.’ Or you see a team walking and you’re like, ‘Yep, we just beat y’all.’ It’s really fun.
“So I think it brings the excitement. And a little trash talking to your friends. … I really appreciated it.”