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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    As women's hoops grows, scrutiny increases on NCAA hosts to manage hotel offerings, travel times

    Eastern Washington guard Jamie Loera (15) passes the ball away from Oregon State guard Kennedie Shuler (1) during the first half of a first-round college basketball game in the women's NCAA Tournament in Corvallis, Ore., Friday, March 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)

    Eastern Washington savored the thrill of claiming a Big Sky Conference Tournament title that secured its second trip to the NCAA women's basketball tournament.

    Yet, with the Eagles part of March Madness for the first time since 1987, there was at least one damper on that buzz: having to stay in a hotel 40 miles out due to limited availability near Oregon State's arena, leading to a gameday trip that took an hour.

    "To be an hour away, we were pretty bummed," Eastern Washington athletic director Tim Collins told The Associated Press.

    It's an example of the logistical headaches that are part of the equation for a tournament that has long relied on host schools for opening-round games and the better attendance that comes with it. Yet with those sites not determined until days ahead of time compared to years on the men's side, there are more variables such as limited hotel availability displacing teams from the local scene — an issue highlighted by Utah reporting that it experienced a series of hate crimes in Idaho while staying 30 miles from its games in Spokane, Washington, before changing hotels.

    "Seeing packed venues at first- and second-round games was incredible, and it is certainly an important aspect of our student-athletes' NCAA Tournament experience," Texas A&M deputy athletic director and senior woman administrator Kristen Brown said in an email to the AP.

    "However, there also needs to be a certain standard and consistency across all host sites when it comes to areas like hotel accommodations, nutrition, and the competition facility that are prioritized as part of the student-athlete experience as well."

    That's a balance facing the NCAA as it evaluates the next steps for the tournament at a time of unprecedented growth and popularity for the sport.

    Lynn Holzman, NCAA vice president for women's basketball, told the AP this week that the selection committee was scheduled to review its championship format after the 2025 tournament, though she is pushing for that to begin this year. That would include the advancement from the First Four through the early round hosts and then to the two-regional format introduced last season.

    As far as host sites, it's a tricky balance, starting with the boost of stronger attendance for home-standing teams compared to playing at neutral sites to start the tournament. This year, the opening two rounds drew a record 292,456 fans, surpassing last year's previous high by more than 60,000.

    "If the NCAA can come up with a well-designed plan for (neutral-site hosts), it would definite be better from a competitive standpoint," said Nebraska spokesman Jeff Griesch, whose Cornhuskers traveled to the Oregon State site for the NCAAs. "Not sure it will be better for fans, the atmosphere in the buildings or the presentation on television."

    And there's another matter: Being picked as a host has become a standing reward for top teams based on their season success. It matters, too, such as Tennessee coach Kellie Harper noting North Carolina State's loud home crowd made it difficult for her team to communicate in a second-round loss at the Wolfpack.

    "That's why all year long I'm so stressed out because I know every game matters so much if you're trying to get a top-16 and get to host," Wolfpack coach Wes Moore said. "They've worked their tails off all year to get that little advantage, and just proud of them for cashing in on it."

    N.C. State offers an example of how it's easier to manage the logistics in some locations than others.

    The school is located in the capital city of the country's ninth-most populous state, and the area frequently hosts men's opening-round games featuring eight teams, as well as previously hosting NHL events such as the entry draft (2004), All-Star Game (2011) and a Stadium Series outdoor game (2023).

    So finding nearby hotels capable of offering meeting space or nutritional support wasn't difficult. The three teams — Chattanooga and Green Bay joined the Lady Vols — playing at the Wolfpack's Reynolds Coliseum ended up staying at hotels within roughly 6 miles and 20 minutes of travel time from the venue.

    Yet Raleigh is roughly seven times more populated than Corvallis, Oregon, where Eastern Washington, Nebraska, Texas A&M opened tournament play.

    "In our case, Corvallis didn't have enough hotels," Collins said. "The NCAA has three-star requirements. What kind of catering can you do? In a smaller town, you don't have many three-star hotels."

    The Eagles ended up staying in Salem, drawing the furthest travel time as the lowest-seeded team among the four in Oregon State's pod.

    "Oregon State, their team gave us incredible hospitality," Collins said. "We asked for a police escort. Unfortunately, there was miscommunication and they gave us an escort but no traffic control."

    There also can be additional complications, such as the men's tournament holding games in Spokane the same week as the women's tournament along with a large youth volleyball tournament in the area that contributed to a pinch on hotel availability.

    That illustrates Brown's point about pushing for more consistency in hosting requirements and offerings, particularly in evaluating the future in a sport of rising popularity.

    "I have talked to some of my colleagues around the country," Brown said. "Locker rooms at the competition facility should have bathrooms inside of them. Host hotels should be full service and have the ability to provide proper nutrition for teams, and if they are unable to do so, it should be required to allow outside catering in order to properly nourish your team. Hotel accommodations should be within a reasonable distance from the competition venue."

    Brown went on to call those "minimum expectations" that schools have during regular-season competition.

    If those expectations couldn't be reached in the current model, she said alternatives "should be explored, whether that is competing at neutral sites, going back to predetermined campus sites or some other setup that allows for our student-athletes to have the overall experience they deserve."

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