Tourney expansion a hot topic at women's Final 4

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer gestures two games left during a news conference in Stanford, Calif., on Wednesday. VanDerveer said if the men's tournament expands, the women's should do so at the same time.
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer gestures two games left during a news conference in Stanford, Calif., on Wednesday. VanDerveer said if the men's tournament expands, the women's should do so at the same time. Paul Sakuma/Associated Press

The coaches of the women's teams which will play in the Final Four in San Antonio this weekend didn't even make it to Texas before having their first disagreement.

The four were asked in conference calls this week whether or not they favored expansion of the women's NCAA tournament, the way the men's tournament appears ready to get even larger. The men's tournament is on the verge of expanding from 65 teams to 96, with the top 32 teams receiving a first-round bye.

NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen outlined a detailed plan for expansion on Thursday, although the measure would still need approval by the NCAA's board of directors, according to The Associated Press.

Oklahoma women's coach Sherri Coale believes emphatically that the men's and women's tournaments - which have provided a great deal of theater in the last few weeks, including the Butler men advancing to the Final Four and the Stanford women winning their regional final with four seconds to go - should remain as they are.

Oklahoma plays Stanford in the first national semifinal game at 7 p.m. Sunday, followed by UConn's game against Baylor at 9:30 p.m. (ESPN). UConn, the defending national champion, is 37-0 and in the midst of a 76-game winning streak.

"Why would you just touch what happened in the men's tournament?" Coale said. "I'm speechless to even respond to it. How could you ask for a better sporting event than what just occurred?

"And you look at our women's tournament and we've had all kinds of close games and victories at the end and overtimes. We're getting it. We're figuring it out. I just feel very strongly that getting into the tournament is something you earn over the course of a season. I don't think that just everybody should get to go."

The 96-team field could create even greater mismatches than before in the women's game. For example, were the field at 96 this season and a first-round upset took place, top-ranked UConn - which already set a record with a 40-point blowout in the Dayton Regional final - could have wound up playing a team ranked in the 90s.

That's the opposite of the parity the women's game is trying to promote, Coale said.

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, meanwhile, said that if expansion should occur on the men's side, it should happen in the women's game at the same time.

She believes an NCAA tournament experience for more teams would help to build a "middle class" of basketball, instead of catering only to the elite.

"Those are the teams that we need having incentive, those teams that are on the bubble. We need women in the gym and offseason improving and getting that experience because it's so positive and I think it's a big carrot that could be used for teams and help develop our game," VanDerveer said.

VanDerveer said there are teams in the Pac-10 Conference, in which Stanford competes, that could have given a good showing in the NCAA tournament, but were not invited.

"We played some closer games in our conference than we did against some of the early rounds," she said.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma had a mixed reaction as to whether the expansion makes sense.

He doesn't believe it would strengthen the NCAA tournament field from a competitive standpoint, but agreed that if the object was to give more student-athletes the experience of qualifying for the tournament, that would be fine with him.

He used the example of the Big East Conference tournament, where all 16 teams are invited because, he said, "it's the right thing to do."

"If you take the rationale are there 96 teams in America that have proven over the course of a year they should compete for the national championship, I would say no," Auriemma said.

"I haven't seen it. That doesn't mean that it's not going to happen or it doesn't mean it should or shouldn't. If you ask me in my personal opinion, I have not seen that there are 96 teams that could compete for the national championship in women's basketball.

"Maybe someday there will be."

• Fourteen of the top women's basketball prospects have been invited to the April 8 WNBA draft in Secaucus, N.J.

The list of invitees is headlined by UConn's Tina Charles and Kalana Greene. Jayne Appel (Stanford), Amanda Thompson (Oklahoma), Monica Wright (Virginia) and Kelsey Griffin (Nebraska) are also among the invitees.

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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