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NCAA women’s tournament brass may mull changes this summer

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The head of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament is pushing to review potential changes to the event’s format this summer, a year sooner than previously planned.

The women’s basketball committee was scheduled to revisit its decision to hold the first two rounds of the tournament at campus sites for highly ranked teams and to hold its second weekend games in two sites rather than four after the 2025 championships. Lynn Holzman, vice president of women’s basketball, said she believes they have seen enough data about the growth of the sport to consider changes this year.

“Given the trajectory of success we’ve experienced over the last couple years, I see no reason to wait to start that review,” Holzman told ESPN on Tuesday afternoon. “The governance structure has to approve [a review], but that is our ask coming out of this championship. I believe that will take place.”

A change in format for the first rounds could potentially help avoid logistical problems such as the ones that occurred at the games hosted by Gonzaga in the first two rounds of this year’s tournament. A lack of available hotel space forced multiple teams competing in Spokane, Washington, to stay more than 30 miles from the Gonzaga campus in Couer D’Alene, Idaho. While in Idaho, members of the Utah basketball team were harassed by men flying Confederate flags in their truck and yelling racist slurs.

The incident is one of several problems that have pocked an otherwise star-studded event that is on track to break viewership and attendance records for the 42-year-old tournament. Holzman said the NCAA has responded to these “serious issues” by addressing the problems as quickly as possible.

In Portland, Oregon, teams played several games with one 3-point line that was nine inches shorter than the other. A referee was replaced midway through a game between Chattanooga and NC State when the NCAA discovered the official had failed to disclose she had a master’s degree from Chattanooga. And last week, Notre Dame All-American Hannah Hidalgo missed several minutes of her team’s loss to Oregon State when referees forced her from the game until team trainers removed a nose ring that she had worn throughout the season and the first two rounds of the tournament.

The string of events frustrated coaches such as Stanford’s Tara Vanderveer, whose team played on the Portland court with the misdrawn 3-point line.

“For an error of that magnitude to overshadow what has been an incredible two weekends of basketball featuring sensational teams and incredible individual performances is unacceptable and extremely upsetting,” Vanderveer said in a statement provided to ESPN.

Holzman said the issues are a series of isolated incidents and not a result of the women’s tournament lacking the resources it needs. Three years ago, the NCAA was sharply criticized for the noticeable difference between the way players were treated at the men’s and women’s tournaments. A review conducted by attorney Roberta Kaplan in the months that followed found that the NCAA had significant systemic problems with gender inequities.

The NCAA has since spent an additional $14 million per year on the women’s tournament, according to an association spokesperson. When asked why the women’s tournament suffers more quality control mishaps than their counterparts on the men’s side, Holzman said the problems this year were unfortunate, but not a result of differences between how the two tournaments are operated or funded.

For example, she said, the vendor in charge of installing the court and its 3-point lines in Portland is the same company used for the men’s tournament. That incident was “isolated human error,” Holzman said. She also said that two years ago the NCAA changed its policy to make sure the budget for paying referees was the same in the men’s and women’s tournament, which had not been the case before the gender equity review that was conducted in 2021. Holzman said the NCAA uses the same vetting process and technology to screen referees for both tournaments.

She said she could not say whether the referee would face any long-term repercussions for failing to disclose her connection to Chattanooga.

Holzman said NCAA officials immediately addressed issues as soon as they were aware of them during this year’s tournament. In Idaho, she said NCAA employees worked with Gonzaga’s administration to move all teams staying in Idaho into different hotels within 12 hours of learning about Utah’s racist harassment. Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said he planned to let NCAA leadership know that it was “unacceptable” to be so far removed from a game site, which he said was “a contributing factor to the impact of this incident.”

The NCAA women’s basketball committee is allowed to deny a school’s opportunity to host home games in the tournament if it can’t provide suitable hotel accommodations within a 30-mile drive from the site of the games, but can grant exceptions as it sees fit. Spokane hosted a men’s opening-round event and a large volleyball tournament the same week as the women’s event, and had run out of hotel space by the time the Zags were announced as a campus host.

When asked if the committee had considered finding another site for those games, Holzman said “the incident that took place is not acceptable,” but Spokane has “historically been a successful host over the years” for men’s and women’s tournament games.

Host sites are required to sign forms that say they can provide a safe environment free from discrimination for all players. Spokane is scheduled to host a regional round of games in next year’s women’s tournament. Holzman did not say whether this year’s incident will impact those plans.



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