An empty feeling? College basketball: As the women's game moves forward, it's unclear if it's yet time to abandon smaller arenas.

March Madness

March 03, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS -- As Nancy Lieberman-Cline surveyed the scene at the RCA Dome for last night's Big Ten women's tournament final between Purdue and Penn State, a satisfied smile spread across her face.

"It might not be 15,000 tonight, but two or three or four years from now it will be," said Lieberman-Cline, once her sport's biggest star and now one of its most respected voices as Women's NBA coach and ESPN analyst.

For the record, there were 5,930 fans in attendance in a building configured to seat 12,000. Though it represented only a fraction of the 47,028 who watched Arizona beat Kentucky here in last year's NCAA men's championship game, it was another step toward the future.

That future includes the first women's Final Four in a domed stadium, scheduled for the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, in 2002. But the question still needs to be asked: By moving into bigger, more impersonal settings, will women's basketball be treading in dangerous territory?

It is a question that was asked last weekend in Charlotte, N.C., where the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game between North Carolina and Clemson drew 5,500 in the 10,000-seat Independence Arena. Would the ACC have been better staying in smaller cities such as Rock Hill, S.C., or Fayetteville, N.C.?

It is a question that some in the Big Ten offices are still asking

since, at the urging of its coaches, the league moved the recently revived women's tournament out of comfy, 11,000-seat Hinkle Field House at nearby Butler University and into the RCA Dome.

"The jury is still out on that one," associate commissioner Kevin Weiberg said recently. "There are some people who feel it should be held in a smaller venue."

Weiberg's boss, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney, isn't one of them. Nor does Delaney seem certain that an arena that features big blue curtains to create intimacy, with a large expanse of empty seats quite visible on television, is the perfect setting.

"Do we want to relocate to a smaller city and be the big fish in a small pond like the ACC has done and the SEC does [playing its women's tournament in Columbus, Ga.]?" said Delaney. "Or do we come to a building where they've played a couple of Final Fours? You can make a case for both sides."

Delaney sees this tournament making a similar progression to the one the women's Final Four has made in recent years, selling out midsized arenas and slowly working its way up to larger venues such as the Alamodome, the site of this year's men's Final Four.

It's the direction the men's game went after playing the 1990 Final Four at McNichols Arena in Denver. When the NCAA left Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., after the 1996 Final Four, it left non-dome sites for good.

The demand is there for the men's Final Four, but will it be there for the women four years from now? Nell Fortner, the former Purdue coach who is now head coach of the U.S. women's national team, points to the sellout crowds of 33,000 that packed the Georgia Dome during the 1996 Olympics.

But Carolyn Peck, Fortner's former assistant and her successor, is a bit more cautious. A former star at Vanderbilt and later an assistant under Pat Summitt at Tennessee, Peck has been exposed to big-time women's college basketball for a long time.

"You could move too fast," Peck said after her Boilermakers survived a sloppy game between two tired teams to win, 59-49. "The women have always played before 4,000 to 5,000. Now, all of a sudden, you're going to 25,000-seat buildings. You've got to keep the supply and demand. You want to keep them rushing in the door."

The atmosphere at the RCA Dome last night made a pretty good case for coming back. The fans, most of them rooting for the home-state Boilermakers, were boisterous. Peck wouldn't mind seeing them return to West Lafayette for a first-round NCAA tournament game next week at 14,123-seat Mackey Arena.

"If we get an opportunity to host, we can pack it," said Peck.

Not that everyone was happy with the way things have gone this week in the fourth year of the Big Ten women's tournament revival.

Penn State coach Rene Portland was not as displeased with her team's performance as what she said was second-class treatment by the league. Portland said she didn't like that the teams were forced to come in only hours before their opening-round games, and then asked to leave immediately after losing.

"The league didn't do squat for the kids," Portland said. "There was no banquet before the tournament. The tournament MVP [Andrea Garner of Penn State] wasn't even asked to come on the court for her award. I wish they did more for the kids."

But Portland is pleased with the move out of storied Hinkle -- the arena in which the movie "Hoosiers" was filmed -- to the RCA Dome. She said the setting at Butler, a member of the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, was that of a glorified high school tournament.

"This is more like a taste of what a Final Four is like," she said. "We've got to keep moving forward. If we don't, somebody's going to write that we're moving too slowly."

Women's bids

Schools that have received automatic bids to the NCAA women's tournament. All bids are by virtue of conference tournament championships except the Ivy League and Pacific-10 conferences, which do not conduct postseason tournaments:

School .. .. . .. ..Conference

Fairfield .. .. .. .. .. .MAAC

Harvard .. .. .. .. .. .. .Ivy

Kent .. .. .. .. ..Mid-America

Liberty .. .. .. .. .Big South

Memphis .. .. .. .. .Conf. USA

Middle Tenn. .. ...Ohio Valley

North Carolina .. .. .. ...ACC

N.C.-Greensboro .. ...Southern

Old Dominion .. .. .. .. ..CAA

Purdue .. .. .. .. .. .Big Ten

Santa Clara .. .. ..West Coast

Tennessee .. .. ..Southeastern

Virginia Tech .. ..Atlantic 10

Pub Date: 3/03/98

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