Rev up that Wayback Machine, Mr. Peabody. Fire up that DeLorean with the flux capacitor. It's time to head back to 2002.
In the 2014-15 NCAA tournament, the top 16 seeds will host first- and second-round games, a format last used in 2002's Big Dance.
In many ways, women's college basketball's landscape didn't look a whole lot different 13 seasons ago, so this won't be that unfamiliar. Connecticut, led by a transcendent star in Diana Taurasi about to embark on history, ruled the world and began a run of three straight championships. Fast-forward to this season and UConn is going for three straight with a mega talent in Breanna Stewart on the cusp of unprecedented heights.
In 2002, Tennessee was fighting to get back to the top of the heap, much like the Lady Vols are doing now. Notre Dame was getting used to life without a program fixture (then: Ruth Riley; now: Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa). Stanford was good but transitioning to a new phase.
So if the format -- and some of the storylines this season -- feels familiar, it should. The NCAA women's basketball power brokers have gone back to the future.
No more predetermined sites, which at times was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. No more lower seed hosting a better-seeded team. No more early-round games with no teams of geographical interest in the arena and, thus, paltry attendance. Overall game atmosphere should improve, the product on television will likely be more aesthetically pleasing, and the perception of unfairness disappears. If Texas A&M is a No. 1 seed, the Aggies begin the tournament in College Station, Texas. If the Aggies are seeded No. 5 or lower, they don't host. Simple as that.
The game schedule is also different and harkens back to 2002. Games in the first, second and regional rounds will be played Friday/Sunday and Saturday/Monday, a format that is much more travel-friendly for the fans moving the turnstiles. Yes, there is now an additional day directly opposite the men's NCAA tournament games, but the new schedule keeps the action more central to the weekend and easier to plan around a work week. The Women's Final Four will remain a Sunday/Tuesday format for now.
Speaking of the regionals, the one-year trial/experiment/puzzling decision/stopgap (pick your term) of teams hosting the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games is no more. It was an idea few endorsed and was meant to be something transitional. Fortunately, it didn't have a great impact on the end result. Louisville lost to Maryland on its home floor, Nebraska never even made it out of the second round to get to Lincoln, Stanford beat teams it would have been favored against on a neutral floor anyway on its way to the Final Four, and Connecticut probably could have played teams on Mars and still reached the title game.
Now the tournament rules return to how they have been traditionally, not allowing schools that have played more than three regular-season games in an arena from appearing in a regional on that floor.
Some caveats exist, however. For instance, Duke can still be placed in Greensboro (conference tournament games do not count toward the three), as the Blue Devils were in 2007. Gonzaga was put in the Spokane Regional in 2011 and 2013 and can be this season. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State can be sent to Oklahoma City.
With hosting changes to the first two rounds, the bracketing procedure becomes more streamlined, so the NCAA has gone to a more clear-cut definition of how the committee will place teams from the same conferences. Remember the head-scratching of 2013 when Stanford and Cal were the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds, respectively, in the Spokane Regional? Or in 2011 when Baylor and Texas A&M were likewise placed in Dallas? Geographical considerations were the reason given. Some referred to it as the "G-Curve," and it didn't appear to always line up with reason or competitive balance. The principles and procedures on this are now much clearer for 2015:
Each of the first four teams from a conference shall be placed in different regions if they are seeded on the first four lines.
The committee will still attempt to keep teams from the same conference from facing each other before the regional finals, but it does have an out from that stipulation if the teams met fewer than three times in the regular season and the committee can't otherwise balance the bracket. For example, if eight or nine ACC teams reached the tournament and Duke and North Carolina needed to be placed on a course to meet in the Sweet 16 after having met just twice during the season to keep the integrity of the bracket, then it could be done.
A couple other notes to be mindful of with this first edition of Bracketology of the new season:
Maryland and Rutgers are now in the Big Ten. At the very least in the case of the Terrapins, the Big Ten gains a tournament team and the ACC loses one. This bracket has seven teams from the Big Ten, also including Rutgers, and six from the ACC. One of those six happens to be Louisville, which is also on the move. Like the Scarlet Knights, Louisville spent one year on a layover in the American Athletic Conference before transitioning. The burden of UConn is now gone for the Cardinals, but the depth of a league with Duke, Notre Dame and North Carolina now stands in the way.
The changes for Louisville, Maryland and Rutgers and their new conferences might or might not be good. The season and future financial spreadsheets will give us that answer. The shifts in the tournament format seem more definitively positive.