A number of weeks ago, I briefly previewed where Cal stood in the March Madness pecking order. Since then the Bears have surged in February and have eliminated any real doubt that they might miss out on the tournament. A big win over RPI top 25 Arizona State means that we're now talking about where Cal will go in March rather than if. That's a much more fun conversation to have.
Thus, we are faced with a new question. Which team will be hosting the Bears on their home court?
In case you're brand new to women's basketball, a quick primer: Unlike the men's tournament, women's teams are allowed to host tournament games. Last year, that privilege was only possible in the first two rounds, but now it is possible for Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games*.
And how does a team earn the honor of playing tournament games at home? You have to bid to host either first and second round games or third and fourth round games. Competitive imbalance goes to the highest bidder! And in case you were wondering, if a team that was selected to host makes the NCAA tournament, they are automatically placed in their home arena, regardless of whatever seed they actually earn.
Every year, the question becomes: How many teams that won a bid to host will actually make the NCAA tournament? How many regionals will be ‘open?' According to Charlie Creme's most recent bracketology update, 13 of 16 regions are currently filled by home teams expected to make the tournament. The likely-to-be-unhosted regions are as follows, with the teams that won't receive at-large bids in parenthesis:
Los Angeles (UCLA)
Ideally, Cal would be sent to one of these regions where they wouldn't have to face a team playing on their home court. Unfortunately, two of these potential options can be immediately eliminated. Likely 1 or 2 seed Stanford will play in Los Angeles, and likely 1 seed Notre Dame will play in Toledo. Book it. And lest you feel sorry for Stanford or Notre Dame not being able to host games in the first two rounds, please note that both will host 3rd and 4th round games, assuming they make it that far (they will). The rich get richer.
That leaves Seattle. Every highly ranked school that didn't win a bid to host a first round site likely wants to be sent there. Will Cal be that team? Maybe, maybe not. Charlie Creme, the only women's basketball bracketologist in the market, currently pegs Cal as a 4 seed and sends them to Seattle. That is a dream scenario for the Bears, in terms of both location and potential opponents.
But what Mr. Creme projects is hardly set in stone. The committee could just as easily decide to send likely 1/2 seeds Louisville or South Carolina to Seattle rather than placing them on the home floor of a lower seeded opponent. If you're a team like Louisville, would you rather travel 700 miles for a true road game, or 2,000 miles for a neutral site game? I don't know the answer to that question.
So, what can we hope for? Well, we can root for Cal to finish the regular season on a hot streak. If Cal were to sweep through the Washington schools before heading to Seattle and winning the Pac-12 tournament (or at least making the finals before losing to Stanford) maybe their seed would rise enough to justify protection from the NCAA tournament by being sent to Seattle. But that's a hardly a sure thing. If our Bears do get sent to play on the home floor of another tournament team, what are the best options? Here are a few of the top choices:
Ames vs. Iowa St.
Iowa State is the worst team likely to host a tournament game. They are actually on the bubble at the moment, though I think they are unlikely to fall out of the tournament entirely. Ames is the best case scenario in pretty much every category. Unfortunately, this is a likely destination for either Louisville or South Carolina, as ISU will likely earn a 7-10 seed that wouldn't fit with Cal's likely 4/5/6 seed.
West Lafayette vs. Purdue
This one is a distinct possibility. Cal and Purdue are both in a similar seeding range, so I could envision a scenario in which Cal and Purdue are 4/5 seeds in some order. The Boilermakers got blown out by Stanford and Duke and lost to Northwestern at home, so there's nothing on their resume that really intimidates.
Iowa City vs. Iowa
Everything I said about Purdue you can pretty much say about Iowa, except Iowa has a slightly more impressive non-conference performance in my eyes. From a travel distance perspective, this location is the best option . . . which tells you how much the Western half of the country is ignored in this tournament.
Chapel Hill vs. North Carolina
Arizona State beat UNC. Sure, it was in Tempe and it took overtime. But if ASU has beaten a team, then I know that Cal can do it too. UNC also has something of a reputation for NCAA tournament underachievement, and although I'm not one to read too deeply into that type of stuff, we're splitting hairs here.
Baton Rouge vs. LSU: Who feels like another rematch with Nikki Caldwell? Not me. Even if we did beat them last year, I still have a not-irrational fear of Caldwell.
Lexington vs. Kentucky: The DeNesha Stallworth reunion tour. At this point we're just looking for storylines, right?
College Park vs. Maryland: Hey, at least LEastCoastBears would be able to go?
So there's what you should be rooting for come Selection Sunday. One last item to hope for? Of the four regionals, the best to get placed in (other than not being placed anywhere near UConn) is the Lincoln regional. If Cal were to make it to the Sweet 16 or Elite 8, I'd much rather face Nebraska at home than Louisville, Stanford or Notre Dame. That's looking waaaaay too far ahead, but that never stopped me before.
On the other hand . . . beating Stanford at Maples Pavilion with a trip to the Elite 8 or the Final 4 on the line would possibly be the single most awesome win in program history.
*Next year, thankfully, teams that earn a 4 seed or higher will automatically earn the right to host 1st and 2nd round tournament games. That's bad news if you like upsets but great news if you follow a team that might have two pre-season All-Americans on the roster.