Should the women’s NCAA tournament be played only on neutral sites? Utah coach Lynne Roberts weighs in

Second-seeded Utes will host No. 10 seed Princeton Sunday at the Huntsman Center, where they are 15-0 this season.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Ines Vieira (2) drives the ball down the court against Gardner-Webb of a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 17, 2023, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Should the best teams in women’s college basketball host NCAA tournament games?

Or should the games be played at neutral sites?

For University of Utah head coach Lynne Roberts, it’s a bit complicated.

On one hand, as the Utes’ coach sees it, the ability for a top-2 seed to host first- and second-round games is something to strive for, and certainly something her program circled after losing in the second round last season at the University of Texas. The Utes, the No. 2 seed in Greenville Regional 2, accomplished that goal, opening their NCAA Tournament on Friday night with a 103-77 win over No. 15 seed Gardner-Webb. Utah will face No. 10 seed Princeton in the second round on Sunday afternoon (5 p.m., ESPN2).

On the other hand, Roberts sees that women’s hoops attendance is getting better, and parity in the women’s game is persisting, so at some point in the future, moving the first two rounds back to neutral sites may be more viable.

Roberts has now experienced hosting and all of the competitive advantages that come with it, from a home crowd to the ability to use your own facilities all week. So has her opinion changed as this hosting opportunity comes to a close on Sunday evening?

“I can certainly say both,” Roberts said Saturday afternoon at the Huntsman Basketball Facility. “I understand why we do it, and I think we’re a ways away. This year, we’re doing the kind of Super Regionals for the first time on the women’s side. There’s the South Carolina region, and then the Seattle region. So the winners of the 16 sites, eight teams will go here, eight teams will go there for fans, and then the winners of the two winners of those will go to Dallas (for the Final Four), so that’s a new kind of method.

“I think it’s important as you said, the parity. If you look at the top 10, there’s been a lot of people jumping in and out. There’s a lot of mid-major teams that are really good and it’s evening out, which is really good for our sport. I think eventually, it should move to neutral, but not right now. Not tomorrow, not next year.”

Roberts’ desire to not have the first couple of rounds move off-campus sites tomorrow or next year was tongue-in-cheek because, barring NCAA Transfer Portal defections or something else unforeseen, Utah could be in a similar position next season.

Princeton head coach Carla Berube is in a different position than Roberts. Back-to-back Ivy League Tournament champions, the Tigers have been sent to campus sites each of the last two seasons and won first-round games. They fell to Indiana in Bloomington in last season’s second round, and now must deal with a Utah team that is 15-0 at the Huntsman Center this winter.

A move back to neutral sites would presumably even out the playing field a bit for a team like Princeton.

“I had the same question last year because we were playing at Indiana, Assembly Hall, where it was crazy, it was such a great atmosphere,” Berube said. “Those programs and teams that have put together such a great season and got the opportunity to host, well, there’s a reason for that. They had a great season.

“When I was at Connecticut (from 1993-97), we always hosted and that was such an awesome experience as well. You know, put me wherever you want to put me, neutral or not. It is fun to be on a campus, just seeing what other campuses have and programs.”

Thinking about 2023-24

Roberts does not have a senior on her current roster. If everyone returns, spearheaded by Pac-12 Player of the Year and second-team All-America selection Alissa Pili, the Utes will project to start next season ranked highly, likely with a single digit.

Furthermore, as the Utes spent the final three months of the regular season ranked inside the top 10, a potential deep NCAA Tournament, maybe all the way to the Final Four, became more real, at least from the outside.

Those possibilities could get louder as next season unfolds. Credit to Roberts, she’s at least willing to admit that those things are not happening in a vacuum, but she is of course wary of dreaming that far ahead.

“Yeah, I think it’s exciting to think about, but I have cautioned all of us that nothing is guaranteed, either,” Roberts said. “I didn’t want us to get into this trap as we head down the stretch of the season like, ‘Well, next year, we’ll have everyone back,’ because you don’t know. Things can happen, sports are crazy that way, so we need to play like this year is the year and we need to approach this like who knows what next year might bring. Of course it’s exciting to think about, and we’ve got a couple of recruits coming that are going to be great freshmen. That’s how you keep building it, but we have to stay in the moment for sure.

“But yeah, I’ve thought about it.”

The notion that maybe this year is the year is interesting, because Utah’s trip through uncharted waters this winter has offered plenty of evidence that it can still be playing next weekend. If Utah can beat Princeton, a potential regional semifinal next weekend against three-time national championship-winning head coach Kim Mulkey and No. 3 seed LSU in Greenville is going to yield one of two things.

How far the Utes have come, or how far they still have to go.