Women's NCAA Tournament 2010: The Case for Contraction

Tom SmithCorrespondent IMarch 22, 2010

Big News! The 2010 NCAA tournament is starting soon!

Okay, you got me—they have already played the first round. Excuse me for not noticing. And apologies to No. 12 seed Green Bay for knocking out No. 5 seed Virginia, to No. 11 seed Arkansas-Little Rock for taking down No. 6 Georgia Tech, and to No. 10 seed Vermont for dispatching No. 7 Wisconsin.

The higher seed prevailed, generally by double-digits, in all but the three games listed above. By contrast, 11 lower seeds won on opening day of the men's tournament.

Looking at the top four seeds in each region, all but two of those 16 teams won their first game by double digits. Both of the "close games" were 4-13 games.

Take a look at some of these scoring margins in games involving a No. 1 or No. 2 seed: UConn by 56, Ohio State by 34, Tennessee by 33, Nebraska by 39. The top two lines in each region won their first game by an average margin of 36 points.


If we can agree that those 15 and 16 seeds don't belong in the same tournament as the top seeds, we're down to 56 teams. This still probably wouldn't help create "destination viewing" for the tournament though.

One more cut, this time chopping out the 13 and 14 seeds (remember, not one of those teams came within single digits in the game they lost), we're down to a 48 team tournament.

Sound funky? Well, the current 64 team field has only been in play since 1994. From 1989-1993, the NCAA tournament field was—yep, 48 teams. Before that, it was 40 teams, and the field was 32 teams when the tournament began in 1982.

Tournament expansion in the men's game was always driven by an increase in qualified teams (until this latest proposed expansion, of course). In direct contrast to this however, the women's tournament has expanded simply to demonstrate "equality" between how the two sports are handled.

That's actually the problem. The games aren't equal, so we can't treat them equally.

Twenty-five years after the NCAA tournament began to take hold in 1953, they were still inviting only 32 teams. There simply weren't enough qualified teams. The men's field did not expand to it's current 64 (I don't count the play-in game, and neither should you) until 1985—33 years of schools developing their programs and demonstrating that they belonged in the field.

Why the big rush on the women's side?

Look just at the last ten years of play. Let's consider reaching the regional finals a mark that you belong in a championship tournament. Ten years, eight teams per year—easy math: 80 teams. Only 13 teams from that group were seeded below a No. 3. The lowest was a seven seed. All four No. 1 seeds reached the Elite Eight five times in those 10 years. There has not been a champion crowned in that span who was lower than a No. 2 seed.

More: Sure, there was a No. 1 seed that fell to a No. 16 (Harvard over Stanford, 1998), but did you know that a No. 15 seed has never beaten a No. 2? Did you know that no No. 14 seed has ever beaten a No. 3?

The reason for the dominance of the top teams is simple.

With no early defections to pro ball, the top teams are also the best teams, and the most experienced teams. If your best player is a freshman, you will go nowhere in this tournament.

It takes time to build a winning program. Do you think UConn's president woke up one morning and said, "Let's start winning every game we play," or are you aware of the time and the resources that went into building that program?

How about the monumental efforts of Pat Summit in building a dynasty at Tennessee? Summit was paying her dues from before there was an NCAA women's tournament at all. She was the team's equipment manager, bus driver, and trainer while fighting the university for funds.

There has been progress made in the sport. The championships by Maryland, Baylor, and Notre Dame in the last tens years shows that it isn't just a couple of teams that win every year. Only in 1989 did all four No. 1 seeds reach the final four.

That doesn't change the fact though that there are only 16 teams in the tournament each year with some kind of hope of winning it.

Hey, NCAA—You want people to watch your tournament? Make it competitive. Start by trimming down to 48 teams.

Don't get me wrong—I love watching the women's tournament. I just don't start watching until regional semi-finals. That's when the fun really starts.