OSU women’s basketball team played valiantly Tuesday night, when its season ended with a 68-59 loss at Duke. The Cowgirls had a 34-21 lead at halftime, a 15-point lead early in the second half and one-point lead with 41/2 minutes left. But the Blue Devils finished strong and won going away.
Put that game on a neutral court, and OSU wins. At least Tuesday night. Duke was seeded second and is a long-time national power, but the difference in the two teams Tuesday night was the momentum and energy the Blue Devils had late in the game, courtesy of their crowd.
Truth is, the NCAA women’s tournament is mostly a sham the first two rounds. The tournament is played almost exclusively on a participant’s home court. Of the 16 first-round sites, only one did not have a host school — Columbus, Ohio, where the Sooners played and beat Central Michigan and UCLA to reach the Sweet 16.
To the credit of some teams, not all the home teams won. Nine of the 15 advanced. Among the nine were teams seeded worse than their opponent — sixth-seeded Delaware (over North Carolina), sixth-seeded LSU (over Penn State), fifth-seeded Louisville (over Purdue).
Teams that won a literal road game in the tournament were fifth-seeded Iowa State, which beat Gonzaga at Spokane but then lost to Georgia; 10th-seeded South Florida, which beat Texas Tech at Lubbock but then lost to California; 12th-seeded Kansas, which beat Colorado at Boulder and then beat South Carolina; sixth-seeded Nebraska, which beat Texas A&M at College Station; top-seeded Notre Dame, which beat Iowa in Iowa City; and seventh-seeded Dayton, which beat St. John’s in New York.
And here’s what’s crazy. Women’s basketball clings to these homecourts to give some semblance of a crowd. But where are the crowds? The OU-UCLA game on the Ohio State campus drew 1,358 fans. The OSU-Duke game on the Duke campus drew 2,683 fans.
Women’s basketball has served up the head of competitive balance for 1,000 extra fans? With this setup, The NCAA women’s tournament is not building its brand with the American sports public. It could be that the brand is being built up at a few schools, but not the sport’s.
It’s hard to slowly build up interest at neutral sites. Hard, but worthwhile. The NCAA women’s tournament has some good basketball, but it’s devalued by the setting.