A year ago, as her Utah basketball team was preparing to face Texas in front of a burnt-orange crowd in Austin, Utes coach Lynne Roberts made it clear she hopes the women’s NCAA Tournament will one day be played on neutral sites.
Roberts and the Utes, however, probably won’t mind a homecourt advantage so much this year.
The entirety of the men’s tournament is contested at neutral sites, from the First Four in Dayton all the way through the Final Four, which will take place next month in Houston. The women’s tournament, though, plays its first two rounds at campus sites of the top four seeds in each of the four regions.
As a No. 2 seed for the Greenville 2 Regional, the Utes will host No. 15 seed Gardner-Webb on Friday at the Huntsman Center (5:30 p.m., ESPNU). No. 7 seed North Carolina State will face No. 10 seed Princeton in the 8 p.m. nightcap, with the two winners facing off in the round of 32 on Sunday back at the venerable 15,000-seat arena.
Another difference: Men’s tournament sites are awarded years in advance, giving hosts ample planning time. For example, Utah will act as the host for a men’s first/second-round site in 2024 at Vivint Arena. That, along with 450 other host sites for various championship events in the 2023-26 bidding cycle, was awarded way back on Oct. 14, 2020.
As for the women, while it appeared imminent for roughly three months that Utah would wind up hosting two rounds as a top-4 seed, that wasn’t official until the Utes popped on the TV Sunday evening as a No. 2 seed.
Yes, this is all technically happening on short notice, but planning for 2023 really began in 2022.
A year in the making
Utah played well enough last year that Gavin Gough, the associate athletic director for facilities, operations and capital projects, felt compelled to at least go through the bid process in the event the Utes wound up as a top-4 seed.
The women’s tournament does not fall within the traditional NCAA bidding cycle, but rather there is a bid portal system that opens at the beginning of the season. There are specifications and requirements bidders must meet, but none of it mattered after the Utes wound up with a 7-seed for their first trip to the NCAA Tournament in a decade.
The good news, though, was that at least there were discussions last season, some initial planning meetings to help set the stage if Utah had to host, which it will now. In hindsight, Gough views last season as beneficial as the athletic department readies to put its best foot forward this weekend.
“Last year, with it being uncertain, you certainly don’t want to say your time wasn’t well-spent, but this year, we just had a lot more confidence because of the team’s success, that we knew that our time in planning would be well spent, after we submitted a bid,” Gough told The Salt Lake Tribune during a recent phone interview. “As the team has been on the rise this season, last season has absolutely helped with planning this season.”
In fairness, this is not nearly Utah’s first foray into hosting an NCAA championship event on its campus. The Huntsman Center has hosted 81 NCAA Tournament games on the men’s side, including the famed 1979 national championship game between Larry Bird’s Indiana State and Magic Johnson’s Michigan State. Friday night will mark the first women’s tournament games at the Huntsman Center since 2011, while a women’s gymnastics regional is coming to town for the 16th time in 2025.
What do on-campus logistics look like?
Gough pointed out that a lot of the work was already done, if not predetermined, by the time Selection Sunday rolled around. Specifically, team hotels, practice locations, and locker room assignments are based on seeding, it’s just a matter of plugging teams in once the field was announced.
The only real mystery from Gough’s vantage point going into Sunday was whether Utah would be hosting on Friday and Sunday or Saturday and Monday. It turned out to be the former.
As far as team hotels go, this is not a neutral-site event and Utah is playing in its own building, so there is a case to be made that, in an effort to keep things normal, head coach Lynne Roberts could have the players stay in the dorms or off-campus housing, but she’s viewing normalcy in a different manner this week.
“We’re going to do a hotel for the team the night before, just so we can keep it very normal in that regard,” Roberts said in the days leading up to Selection Sunday. “We’re going to have families in town and there’s going to be a lot of stuff, so we just want to make sure we keep containment on the things we can control. You get the pep rallies that way, you get the police escorts that way, you get all the NCAA Tournament stuff that’s really memorable and special. That’s hard to do when you’re driving in your Subaru or whatever and parking on your own.
“We’re going to take advantage of the opportunities, but I do think it’s an advantage to be at home, even if they stay a couple nights in a hotel, playing in our own gym, practicing with our own stuff, being in your own locker room. I do think that stuff plays a huge part.”
The NCAA takes control of on-campus facilities on Thursday, the day before the first round. As the host, Gough indicated that Utah will be allowed to use its practice facility and locker rooms at the Huntsman Basketball Facility, but will not have access to the game-day locker room until Friday.
While the Utes can use their own practice floor, the men’s practice gym, the Huntsman Center’s lone court, and the gym/locker room space at the HPER Complex will also be in use. Gough noted that there is an off-campus location secured if it’s needed, but it would take something unforeseen for that to happen.
The Huntsman Center, the Huntsman Basketball Facility, and the HPER Complex are all connected via underground tunnels, which is an added bonus for at least the players, who, for example, will not have to go outside to take part in press conferences during the weekend.
Between the media workroom and player/coach press conferences during the weekend, the Huntsman Basketball Facility will act as the media hub. That is an interesting quirk vs. the men’s tournament, which generally has its media setup contained within the game building.
“We’ve done lots and lots of tournaments throughout the years,” Gough said. “Gymnastics regionals, we’re really seasoned in that. We haven’t hosted the women’s basketball tournament since 2011, so it’s been a minute, but we are really fortunate to have all of those facilities in there connected through all the underground tunnels. So it really makes it possible to use them without having to go outside and whatnot to access them.”
Things are on time for Vivint in 2024
The Huntsman Center has not hosted an NCAA Tournament on the men’s side since 2006, but the University of Utah has acted as host four times at Vivint Arena in the last 13 years, including the 2010 West Regional.
The 2010, 2013, 2017 and 2019 events came here, in part because Utah and Salt Lake City have proven themselves for more than 40 years to be capable hosts, a notion that will always keep Utah in the mix to host as long as it keeps submitting bids.
With a year to go before one of the most-recognizable events in American sports returns to Salt Lake City, Gough indicated a lot of the planning is in place and things have gone smoothly.
In a lighthearted moment in the middle of a busy time, Gough joked that he would be even busier by going on a preliminary site visit to Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, which is acting as a first/second-round site this weekend for the men’s tournament. A member of Gough’s staff, assistant director of events and facilities Nick Trunsovec, is the point man at Utah in Gough’s absence, so preparations for the weekend are uninterrupted. Gough is scheduled to be back in town Friday ahead of the doubleheader.
“Planning is going really well, and we’re very excited about that opportunity, but also about the women’s opportunity this week as well,” Gough said. “It’s an incredible opportunity to put our university out there, and it’s great for our brand, just the amount of exposure that we get in and we’ve seen that in the past. We saw that with NBA All-Star, and we hope to see it again this week with this women’s tournament as well.”