Hop in the DeLorean. Crank up the flux capacitor. The NCAA tournament is headed back to the future.
Not to 1955, just 2004, which is the last time the format of 16 predetermined first- and second-round sites was utilized (it also happens to be the last time Connecticut won the women's basketball national championship, but that's a column for another day).
Just prior to the 2007-08 season, the women's basketball committee decided to shelve the eight-team, eight-site format in favor of doubling the number of host cities. The decision goes into effect this March. Given that 2004 was the high-water mark for attendance of the opening two rounds and that the added cities expand the wingspan of the game, the move seems to be a logical one.
The time had come. The empty seats at a number of first-round games the past couple of years were cringe-inducing. They made for a poor visual on television, and the game needs to be a good TV product to keep growing. George Washington versus Auburn in Stanford and Marist versus DePaul in Baton Rouge were not pulling in bodies.
Having 16 cities will solve some -- but certainly not all -- of that.
The big question, however, is how the competition will be affected. Will it be fair?
Well, if you didn't like it when, on occasion, a lower-seeded team played host to a superior club under the eight-site format, you probably won't like this. By putting more cities in play and keeping those cities predetermined (which really is necessary to maximize attendance), simple math says this perceived inequity is bound to grow.
There were complaints aplenty under the eight-site format, even though such situations occurred relatively infrequently. And even if history indicates such situations are about to happen much more, the complaining is for naught, because they aren't a big deal.
In the four tournaments from 2005 to 2008, only nine times in the first or second round was a higher-seeded team forced to play on a lower-seeded team's home court or placed in an obvious geographic disadvantage. In those scenarios, the higher seed still went 8-1.
In 2004 alone -- the last season under the 16-site format -- that situation occurred nine times. And those kind of numbers are bound to happen in 2009 and/or 2010 and beyond. The "disadvantaged" higher seeds were 6-3 in 2004. Rutgers, Kansas State and Colorado took hits in that tournament, but a combined 14-4 mark for the higher-seeded teams in five seasons (regardless of the format) illustrates that being asked to play a "road" game is hardly crippling.
With just first rounds taken into consideration for this edition of Bracketology, the "higher-seeded school playing on the opposition's home court" scenario occurred twice -- with Louisville in Chattanooga and Pittsburgh in Iowa City. Let Cardinals and Panthers fans be the first to bellow the roars of outrage.
Just remember, as the season evolves and the brackets shift, the above was meant as a warning. Don't be surprised. The new/old 16-site format likely means more higher-seeded teams on the road. And that will OK, because ultimately, it usually doesn't matter.
Charlie Creme can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.