Two weeks ago, no one expected this regional to be played on a neutral court. The #3 seed Iowa State Cyclones were also the hosting institution for the Midwest Regional. Since the top four seeds in the women's tournament each host a subregional in the first two rounds, Iowa State's route to the Final Four consisted of four games on their home court.
Iowa State's dreams, however, were crushed when the #11 seed in the region, Brigham Young University, stunned the world of women's basketball by blowing out perennial SEC power Florida 90-52 in the first round, then upsetting the Cyclones 75-69 on ISU's home court.
So instead of Iowa State challenging three opponents on their home court, four other teams are vying for the regional championship on a neutral court. In the first semifinal at 6:00 p.m. Central Time on Saturday, the BYU Cougars will meet the #2-seeded Tennessee Lady Vols. In the second game, the #1-seeded Vanderbilt Commodores play the #4-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels.
But that's tomorrow. Today was Open Practice and Media Day. In accordance with NCAA requirements, each team held an hour long open practice at the Hilton Coliseum (popularly known as the "Ames Hilton"). Throughout the day, players and coaches met with the press, and Vandymania was there.
Besides the obvious questions about the upcoming games tomorrow, several themes emerged during the successive news conferences. No doubt these topics will receive full treatment by the newspapers covering the regional (most notably, the Durham Herald-Sun, the Tennessean, the San Antonio Express-News, and the Des Moines Press-Register), but here's a sneak peek at the topics du jour.
Wooing Iowa State Fans. During the season, Iowa State averages over 10,000 fans for their home games. Since ISU is out of the running, each of the four teams are hoping that disappointed Cyclone fans will adopt them as their replacement favorite.
One theory holds that the Cougars have the edge because the town has had more time to get to know them since they were here last weekend for the subregional. Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt isn't buying it. "I can't imagine that they'd be cheering for a team that beat them," she said, "so I hope there's a lot of magic for Tennessee. We didn't bring any extra orange t-shirts, but I hope they can dig out and find some orange and come support us."
North Carolina Coach Sylvia Hatchell remembered the Iowa State fans from the subregional in Ames last year when the fans packed the house despite 16 inches of snow on the ground. "They are the greatest fans in the world. And hopefully they'll still come out. We have very few people coming from North Carolina, so we need someone to adopt us and be there for us in the stands."
Since the other coaches had made their pitches, Vanderbilt Coach Jim Foster was asked as well. He took the the approach of comparing the Cyclones with the Commodores: "Well, they like to shoot the three, they have a big center, play in a tough conference, they're unselfish, play a variety of defenses including some junk. I think it's pretty cut and dried who they should be supporting."
Men coaching women, women coaching men. Always a favorite, this topic got a boost this year because two of the coaches here have made the jump to women's basketball after long careers in men's basketball. BYU Coach Jeff Judkins played was an assistant for Utah Utes Coach Rick Majeris for 10 years p after a 5-year stint in the NBA. After he jumped over to BYU, he was in charge of basketball operations for both the men's and women's teams, and became an assistant coach for the women's team last year. This year, in his first year as head coach, he's taken the team to the Sweet 16. Judkins says that he never expected to be coaching women's basketball, but now that he is, he says, "It's fun to coach it. It's fun to watch it. It's fun to be a part of it."
Vanderbilt Assistant Coach Pete Gaudet was a long-time assistant of Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski before coming to Vanderbilt as an assistant for Jan Van Breda Kolff. After a year off from college coaching, Jim Foster brought him aboard the women's program to work with the post players. The press asked Vandy players about Coach Pete. Zuzi Klimesova said, "Coach Pete has always been very good about understanding young people." And then, much to the merriment of the press corps, she added, "He has an advantage because he has two daughters at home; sometimes it's much easier to go to him than to Coach Foster who has two guys."
Neutral courts. Since the women's tournament plays subregionals on neutral courts and allows host universities to play in regionals on their home courts, the topis of neutral courts throughout the tournament pops up again and again.
Tennessee Head Coach Pat Summitt thinks it's not yet time to move to neutral sites. "Obviously all coaches would love to see the NCAA tournament moved to neutral sites. But if you look at our game right now, I don't think we are ready for that move. Women's basketball has come a long way and there is more parity now, but like I said before, I think we are at least three to five years away from making that move."
Coach Foster took a different view. "We just signed a long term contract with ESPN for a lot of money. It's time to go to neutral sites. It's not time to go to pre-determined sites. It's time to go to neutral sites. I would probably take the tack of maybe hiring some coaches that have maybe have lost their job and still have a passion for the game . . . I'd send them to these places and for a year, I'd work my tail off promoting it, marketing it, and getting the local community involved in each of those sites in such a way that would lead to success. We now have some money. That used to be an issue, but the contract that was signed is significantly more than any money the women's game has generated before. So let's take some of it and make a bold decision. Let's go out there and find communities that want to support this thing."