New tourney structure brings many changes

With all the recent upsets, near upsets and "was that an upset?" ... you might be looking down the road at March, and what we might expect from the NCAA Tournament. So maybe this is as good a time as any to talk about how the tournament will be different this season.

The last two seasons, the 16 pre-determined sites setup corrupted the bracket and resulted in situations that were extremely unfair to certain teams. The happy spin the NCAA and the committee tried to put on this disaster made it all the more infuriating.

This year, Memphis' Lynn Parkes has taken over as selection committee chair. And to her credit, she has been very communicative with me.

"We're trying to balance equity in the game," she said. "Everybody eventually would love to get to all-neutral sites."

While I'm not burying the hatchet with the committee, I will try to put it on the shelf for now.

The first and second rounds
There's plenty of uncertainty about the new eight-sites system for the early rounds that will start this season. This is new territory that still has some of the problems of 16 pre-determined sites, plus other potential pitfalls.

But it does have legitimacy as a step in the direction of the ultimate goal of all-neutral sites for every round. If we ever get there. Some might argue that the past two years were also a step that way, but I think that was an unnecessary, illogical step.

If this setup is to be a step forward, though, it is in large part going to depend on you, the fans. Because you need to show, in bigger and bigger numbers, that you care for the sport as a whole, and not just your favorite local teams. I'll get to that more in just a bit.

Here's the deal: There will be eight teams each at eight sites. Those sites have been awarded for 2005 and 2006. This year, they are: Dallas, Fresno, Calif., Minneapolis and Seattle on March 19 and 21, and Chapel Hill, N.C., College Park, Md., Knoxville, Tenn., and Storrs, Conn., on March 20 and 22.

It's a very safe bet to say most of the host schools for these sites will make the tournament. In which case, the game or games the host team plays in, obviously, will not be neutral.

So, once again, we could have the issue of teams -- even when on the same seed line -- having very different paths to the NCAA Tournament . You'll note, for instance, that the current No. 1 team, LSU, will not be near home for the early rounds, while SEC rival Tennessee will be right at home.

Not to mention, also, there remains the possibilities of teams with a lesser seed having a homecourt advantage over better-seeded teams.

Again, though, one positive of this system is that there are fewer teams who will have to face those unfair issues -- since there are fewer hosts. To be more blunt, it means there's now half as much chance as there was the past two years for good teams to get hosed in regard to seeding and location. So we'll have to accept that as a "step forward."

The only guaranteed completely "neutral" site right now -- even before we know who's in the tournament -- is Dallas' Reunion Arena. Texas and Texas Tech are the co-hosts and will have the advantage of lots of fans being able to come, but neither program plays in the arena except in postseason tournaments.

These two rival programs working together to get a bid for Dallas is exactly the kind of thing the NCAA and the committee wants to see more of. If Dallas can get decent attendance, that is the kind of place that is desired.

It sets a model for other schools/communities to follow. There are some places that could host under the old systems of 16 sites -- with three other teams visiting -- but do not have enough hotel space to have seven visiting teams. So if they want to bid for an early-round site, they'll have to do it in a nearby community, and possibly in conjunction with another school.

You might notice that this season, the four Eastern time zone locations are playing on the same days, and the Central/Pacific time zone spots are similarly grouped together. That's essentially for ESPN television's "whip-around" coverage purposes; the network has a choice of games to go to that all start around the same time.

Speaking of game times, that's another thing that will be different: Because it's eight sites, obviously, there will be four games at each place the first day, as opposed to two. And that's where the interest level of fans in the sport comes in.

Certainly, the traveling fans of each team will show for their games. But what about the "home fans?" Just as an example, let's say UConn is playing at 8 p.m. in the first round. How many of the UConn fans will show up for the afternoon contests? And this is not just UConn, obviously. I'm not picking on the Husky nation, just using it to demonstrate the question. It has to be asked of every other site, too.

Will fans participate fully in the first rounds across the country? Or will there be 10,000 people at one game and 1,000 at the others? The fact that the first round is played over Saturday and Sunday helps. But anyone who has followed the sport knows that under the 16-site system, a lot of "home" fans didn't even show up for the one additional game their team wasn't playing in. Or they arrived late for the other game, maybe in the second half.

For the tournament to be the "event" that it should be -- to have an atmosphere that the players, most importantly, deserve -- the fans need to show up. If you've got tickets for the games, educate yourself on the other teams and go watch them. Players are talented, funny, smart, interesting and worth seeing no matter where they are from. Take your kids, sneak in your own snacks if you want, but make a full day/night of it.

In a similar vein, it is a professional responsibility of the media in these areas to cover the entirety of subregional action, not just the local team.

Now, for the regionals
The four in 2005 are in Philadelphia, Chattanooga, Tenn., Kansas City and Tempe, Ariz.

And there are some differences here, this year, too. Like the men's side changed to last year, the regional sites will be called by their city name rather than East, Mideast, Midwest and West. It will be a miracle if I don't mess up and still call them by their geographical location name, not city name, this season. So bear with me on that. I dislike the change because there is a "history" in each geographic regional, not to mention that the record books are divided that way.

But there's a reason for the change: it's the bracket "flexibility" issue. Unlike in the past, all the teams playing at the same early-round site will not necessarily be in the same regional. For instance, two teams will survive the early rounds in Dallas, then one might go to Kansas City and the other to Tempe.

The future, and the details on bidding
Getting to neutral sites for the regionals has been the biggest problem for a long time that the NCAA/committee needed to fix. The inequities caused by homecourt advantage in the early rounds can be irritating enough. But by the time you're down to the final 16 teams, clearly no team should be playing on its home court.

This has been addressed: Starting with the 2007 and 2008 regionals, only neutral sites will be awarded bids. "Neutral" is officially defined as a site where a team plays no more than three of its regular-season games.

As for early-round bids, we're not at a place yet where that can be limited to neutral sites. That's just a reality. However, schools cannot bid to be hosts for more than two years in a row.

Now, another changed aspect to the regional bidding process is that -- again starting in 2007 and 2008 -- prospective bidders may submit proposals asking to get the regional for more than one year.

This makes sense if it's done wisely. Let's say a city/arena gets a regional for two or three years in a row. It gives the organizers and the community a chance to really get involved and market the event in more of a long-term way.

At the same time, the committee must be judicious and realistic about what places should be considered for that kind of a regional bid. It should not give more than a year at a time to a site that can be deemed "neutral" in the letter of the law, but really not the spirit.

How will it all play out?
That's what we're going to discover. The committee will have different challenges this year, and there might be things no one anticipates until they happen. Problems will have to be solved as they come up and not every solution will be satisfactory. There will still be accusations made -- some with merit -- that the selection committee keeps "perpetuating" the same schools' success.

But by the same token, the kinds of close, exciting games that we're seeing now early in the season perhaps have more of a chance of happening with as many neutral-site NCAA games as there will be.

However, everyone -- fans, school officials, marketers and the media -- have responsibilities toward ensuring the environment for and coverage of the games under this new system is maintained as it was or improved.

Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.