Is it fair? The Utes will have to beat Texas on its home court to advance to the Sweet 16
Round of 32 matchup at Erwin Center in Austin, Texas, on Sunday features Utah’s finesse and 3-point prowess against Texas’ power and full court pressure
AUSTIN, Texas — After a lot of inequalities between the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were exposed last year, steps were taken to improve the overall experience for the female players in 2022.
One particular change that a lot of women’s coaches would like to see happen, but hasn’t, is that first- and second-round games in the women’s tournament are still being contested on the home courts of the top 16 overall seeds.
Seventh-seeded Utah (21-11) will experience that firsthand on Sunday. Having routed Arkansas 92-69 on Friday, the Utes will face No. 2 seed Texas (27-6) on its home floor, and in front of its faithful crowd, at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin in a second-round game.
“I was impressed with Texas’ crowd last night for their first-round game. That was really great. So, people care, and I think we are getting close, I hope, to going to neutral sites or super regionals or something, so that it is not home games for those top seeds.” — Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts.
The Longhorns drew an announced crowd of 3,822 for their 70-52 win over Fairfield on Friday.
“I thought we had a nice atmosphere in here for our game last night,” Texas coach Vic Schaefer said Saturday in the off-day news conference.
The reason for the disparity among tournaments is obvious: the NCAA can make more money having the games at home sites, and bigger crowds ensure a better atmosphere.
Last week, Oregon coach Kelly Graves said the time is right to make the change, but it won’t come soon enough to help the Utes — although Utah did have a couple hundred fans in attendance during Friday’s romp over the Razorbacks.
“I don’t think it is right that you play on someone’s court,” Graves said. “I think our game has grown enough to where, ‘OK, let’s make it a truly neutral tournament.
“You know, whether that is putting four (sites) around the country, put 16 teams in one site, whatever. I think neutrality is important.”
For what it is worth, Utah coach Lynne Roberts isn’t complaining, and neither were the players Utah brought to the news conference Saturday — Dru Gylten, Kennady McQueen and Brynna Maxwell.
“I was impressed with Texas’ crowd last night for their first-round game,” Roberts said. “That was really great. So, people care, and I think we are getting close, I hope, to going to neutral sites or super regionals or something so that it is not home games for those top seeds.”
Roberts said parity has improved in the women’s game, and she believes people will come out and support the tournament at neutral sites, especially if they are in cities that have shown a history of supporting women’s basketball.
“I hope we kinda graduate from this,” she said. “I have always kinda believed that women’s basketball is always a few years behind the men’s, and I think we are catching up to it.”
Friday’s games tipped off at 4:30 and 7 p.m. local time in Austin. Officials expect a larger crowd Sunday afternoon.
Bring it on, say the underdog Utes.
“I think just being here and being able to play in any game is great,” Gylten said, acknowledging that a packed house is better than a near-empty arena, like last year when the entire tournament was played in San Antonio and fans were not allowed in due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“We want to play in front of these big (crowds), but I don’t think it is the focus of our team. Our focus is just to show up, stick to the scout, and just play Utah basketball,” she continued.
“And we have some mighty fans, too. Our focus really isn’t on the audience, or the fans, or anything like that. It is just when we step on the court, we are going to play together, we are going to play as a team and the outcome will take care of itself.”
Roberts said toughness in the face of adversity, or a hostile crowd, is a hallmark of this young team that starts two freshmen and two sophomores, along with the senior Gylten.
“They might look like choir kids, but they are as competitive as heck, and they want to win,” Roberts said.
“So yeah, I like their mentality. They don’t feel any sort of anxiousness or pressure, which is fun.”
Sunday’s winner advances to the Sweet 16 and the Spokane (Washington) Regional, which is a neutral site.
Texas’ Schaefer, who was Mississippi State’s coach in the SEC from 2012 to 2020 before landing the Longhorns’ job, said he “used to be that person” that pushed for neutral sites from the get-go.
“We can do that, and there might be this many people in the stands tomorrow if we go to a neutral site,” he said, pointing to a half-dozen or so reporters in the audience.
“That’s why they have done it. They haven’t done it just to go, ‘Hey, let’s give somebody an advantage.’”
Schaefer said every team starts the season knowing what the format will be and with the opportunity to be one of the top 16 seeds.
“It is whatever you think is most important, and apparently the bosses think that what’s more important is that we have bigger crowds that are better for the games and create an atmosphere that our student-athletes can really have a good experience in,” Schaefer said.
Texas senior guard Audrey Warren acknowledged that “getting to play on your home court is a huge advantage itself,” and isn’t apologizing for it.
“I like the way it is,” she said. “I liked it last year when it was all at a neutral site in San Antonio. I am fine either way. I am just happy we get to play basketball.”
Speaking of which, who’s got the advantage on the court on Sunday?
Texas is a big, physical, athletic team that likes to use pressure defense, pound the glass at both ends and create a lot of turnovers.
Utah counters with execution, precision passing, finesse and, of course, one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country.
“We are not going to be unprepared,” Roberts said. “Texas is not a team you can beat one-on-one. You kinda have to do it by committee.
“You can’t beat them with one person trying to put a Superman cape on and trying to do it alone.”
Said Gylten, who will have to handle a lot of that pressure: “The Pac-12 as a conference just prepared us so well for the tournament, because that’s what teams do to us, is pressure us, and try to get us off our track.”
The Utes said Texas’ style reminds them of what Colorado and Arizona do.
“Texas is a great team, but they have to beat us, too,” Maxwell said. “I think we bring a lot to the table.”
Before Texas downed Baylor 67-58 to win the Big 12 title, the Longhorns held off 3-point loving Iowa State 83-73 in overtime in the semifinals.
“If you are Utah, you are probably going to (watch) that film and feel pretty good about yourself,” Schaefer said.
“It (could) be a problem. You stand out there and try to play H-O-R-S-E with Utah, you are going to lose, so we are going to have to find a way to fix that.”
On their home court. In front of their home fans.
Utes, Longhorns on the air
No. 7 seed Utah (21-11) vs. No. 2 seed Texas (27-6)
Sunday, 3 p.m. MST
NCAA Tournament Second-Round Game
At Frank Erwin Center, Austin, Texas
Radio: ESPN AM 700