NCAA Regionals: Reflections
The road to the Final Four
The road to the Final Four
Posted Apr 4, 2009

It’s hard to muse about the NCAA Regionals without talking about all the empty seats. Here’s the take of Full Court's Vicki Friedman on the low numbers, as well as an All-Star team of a different sort and a few other random thoughts that jump to mind while anticipating Sunday’s Final Four in St. Louis.

Was that a pin dropping?

There was some great basketball in last weekend’s NCAA Regionals, but much like the first and second rounds, the attendance zapped some energy out of the fun.

Oklahoma City was the exception, with the Ford Center colored in red when the Sooners held court. Lynn Harmon, a middle-aged male, stood outside the Ford Center, bedecked in Sooner red, holding up his fingers in the familiar sign of a "V." Asked whether that was a "V" for "Victory," Harmon said no--he was searching for two tickets.

Ticket-scalping can be mighty annoying when you're searching for a pair of ducats to a sold-out rock concert. But it's kind of nice to see it for a women's basketball game.

Norman is only a 20-minute drive from the Ford Center, which no doubt explains the more than 10,000 fans who turned out despite inclement weather for the regional semifinals. And there was no week-night fall-off. To the contrary, a crowd of 11,529 filled all but the uppermost reaches of the arena on Tuesday night for the Oklahoma/Purdue Regional final.

"We take in a lot of the girls' games," drawled Harmon as he switched arms, complaining of the wear-and-tear of "old age." Apparently he'd been searching quite a whole.

So do a lot of folks--take in the women's games, that is. The Sooners average 9,500 for regular-season home games. And we'll forgive the use of "girls"--it is Oklahoma and Harmon's heart is in the right place.

In other places, however, numbers were disappointing. The UConn/Arizona State regional final in Trenton drew 4,758; Husky fans no doubt figure they’ll get their shot at the Final Four. PAC-10 fans don’t turn out in huge numbers at home, so it’s no surprise that Arizona State and California didn’t garner many folks ambling east, not to mention Texas A&M, who also had a long way to travel there.

Maryland draws in excess of 13,000 at the Comcast Center, but Kristi Toliver and Marisa Coleman played their final collegiate game in front of 2,659 in Raleigh.

Stanford/Iowa State drew a more respectable 5,022 in Berkley – though, that’s hardly a lofty achievement given that Berkley is the next best thing to a home game for the Cardinal.

At most venues, attendance was marginally better for the Sweet 16 –- played on Saturday or Sunday –- and down for the Monday/Tuesday regional finals. In this economy, it appears getting back to work is key. Still, Terp fans didn’t turn out in large masses even on Saturday, as only 2,915 were in the building to see Coleman amass 42 points over Vanderbilt.

While the NCAA talks about growing the game, what might make the most sense is making the venues that host women’s regionals smaller. Even with all those Courtney Paris fans making noise in Oklahoma City, the top section of the 19,599-seat Ford Center had to be partitioned off with curtains. It was hard for the camera to stray away from all those empty seats every time players shot free throws in Raleigh, Trenton and Berkley.

Empty arenas don’t make for compelling atmosphere. The NCAA has proven it can do better than this. Duke’s Alana Beard squared off against Minnesota’s Lindsay Whalen in 2004 when the Constant Center at Old Dominion hosted a regional. The event was a sellout of 7,960, and NCAA officials gushed about a building that rocked despite no Lady Monarchs being on the floor. Why then has the rule changed that mandates arenas must seat 8,000 or more to host a women’s regional?

Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale spoke candidly about attendance last February in Indianapolis.

"It is not an appropriate experience for a student-athlete to go through four years of college, play their brains out, get into the NCAA tournament, and then play in front of 300 people,” Coale said. “If you come from a conference like ours you'll say, 'This is what I worked so hard for? I play in front of 8,000 every night in the Big 12 and I come here and play in front of 300 people? This doesn't feel like the NCAA tournament.’”

Nothing in Raleigh or Berkley suggested energy, buzz –- NCAA tournament even. Face it: bigger isn’t always better.

The Thrill of Victory, the Agony of ...

The exuberance of Louisville’s Angel McCoughtry when Louisville advanced to its first Final Four was a marked contrast to the poignancy of watching Toliver and Coleman walk off in tears –- senior moments that never get old through the years at the NCAA tournament.

ESPN hasn’t given us enough of them. We didn’t see Kia Vaughn’s face when Rutgers fell to Purdue in the Sweet 16. And unbelievably the camera never strayed from the Baylor players after they survived South Dakota State in the second round. What an oversight to forget the feel-good team of the year in perhaps the most emotional moment of its season.

It's not about a voyeuristic desire to see someone crying their eyes out on national TV. Those tears stand for something more, and it is something that makes many of us love collegiate athletics. These are the tears of someone who has found her passion, and given herself to it -- heart and soul -- for years. Though for Coleman and Toliver, they are not likely the tears of someone playing the sport she loves for the very last time, for many that's exactly what they are. They are also the tears of those who have known the deep bond that can only be found among teammates, and are now leaving those friends and mentors behind.

It's not just a "girl thing," and ESPN shouldn't be embarrassed to show it. Those tears invite us to reflect for a moment on lives lived richly, with passion and commitment. What would be really sad would be a player who could saunter off the court with a careless shrug.


How about an All-Freshman Regional or National Team headlined by Oklahoma’s Whitney Hand? Four more who’d get the nod: Stanford’s Nnemkadi Ogwumike, Ohio State’s Samantha Prahalis, Purdue’s Brittany Rayburn and Maryland’s Lynette Kizer. Kizer didn’t have the number of the others, but is there any doubt how good she’s going to be?

Click here for Full Court's All-American and All-Freshman Collegiate Team selections

Fleeting thoughts

  • What’s a better name? Dymond Simon or Nicky Anosike?
  • Surely it wasn’t coincidence that Sports Illustrated aired its commercial featuring its Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl issue during the Pitt/Oklahoma Sweet 16 game. Give the guy in advertising a raise for recognizing all the Panther and Carla Roethlisberger fans tuning in to see that game.
  • We heard a lot about Toliver and Coleman not working as hard until this year. The Terps won the national title when they were freshmen. It wouldn’t have hurt to air that reel of Toliver draining a three over Duke’s Alison Bales in maybe the most riveting national championship game ever.
  • I’ve seen enough of Bubba Paris.
  • Shot of the tournament so far goes to Purdue’s FahKara Malone against Rutgers. The Scarlet Knight had run almost all the way back, cutting a 16-point deficit to two with 46 seconds left when Malone swished a 12-footer as time expired on the shot clock.
  • How often does the PAC-10 grab the spotlight over the ACC?
  • Loved Jayne Appel’s 46-point domination over Iowa State. But nobody gave a better effort than Maryland’s Marissa Coleman’s 42-point, 15-board performance in the win against Vanderbilt.
  • We heard a lot more about Nikki Speed in high school than we ever have at Rutgers.
  • It’s fun to pick on ESPN, but seeing every game Sweet 16 and beyond with paying a fee is a treat men’s fan would love.
  • Is it Sunday yet?

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