NCAA announces expansion of women’s college basketball tournament to 68 teams

The NCAA announced Wednesday that the women’s basketball tournament will move to a 68-team field, up from 64, starting this season.

In addition, the women’s selection show will be Sunday, March 13, on ESPN. The show had been on Mondays since 2006, but it moves back to Sunday to accommodate the extra games, which will be played March 16-17.

The last four at-large teams and teams seeded 65 through 68 will compete in the opening-round games prior to the start of the first and second rounds of the championship, which begin March 18-19.

The top 16 seeds will host first- and second-round games. For the 2022 tournament, the four new opening-round games will be held at four of those 16 sites. Starting in 2023, the opening round will be held at a neutral site to be determined.

The men’s tournament went to 68 teams in 2011, resulting in the First Four, which precedes the start of first-round play. The men’s First Four has been played in Dayton, Ohio, every season except in 2021, when due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was held in Indiana along with the rest of the men’s tournament.

“This was another important step in providing additional championship participation opportunities for women’s basketball student-athletes,” Nina King, chair of the Division I Women’s Basketball Committee and director of athletics at Duke, said in a statement. “The committee was in support of implementing this as soon as possible and were pleased that the expanded championship field will be in play immediately for the upcoming championship and beyond.”

The NCAA women’s tournament began in 1982 with 32 teams and grew over the years until reaching 64 teams in 1994.

The move to 68 teams follows other NCAA measures in recent weeks regarding women’s basketball, such as opting to use the March Madness branding for the women’s tournament. The changes come in the wake of the gender equity report by the law firm of Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP, which the NCAA commissioned regarding its championships after disparities between the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments came to light in March.

“The expanded bracket and championship opportunities for Division I women’s basketball student-athletes are paramount,” Lisa Campos, chair of the Division I Women’s Basketball Oversight Committee and director of athletics at UTSA, said in a statement. “While the 2022 championship will be conducted at top-16 seed campus sites, this is a transition year for the tournament, and strong consideration will be given for other improvement areas, including opening-round games taking place at a predetermined site, in order to improve the championship experience in 2023 and beyond.”

The Division I Women’s Basketball Committee, which now consists of 12 members versus 10 as in previous years, also approved an updated Selection Principles and Procedures document for 2021-22. The document will reflect the move to 36 at-large teams along with the 32 automatic qualifying teams, as well as updated bracketing principles language.

ESPN channels will broadcast all games of the 2022 women’s tournament.

UConn women’s coach Geno Auriemma said he thinks the move to 68 is primarily “because the men do it.” But he added that if it means more mid-major and small-conference schools have a chance to make the women’s NCAA tournament field, it could be a positive.

“Then I’m all for it,” said Auriemma, whose Huskies play in the Big East. “If it’s more about getting the eighth- or ninth-best teams in from the power conferences, I’m not sure why they deserve to play in the NCAA tournament.”

LSU women’s coach Kim Mulkey said, “You don’t want it to water down the tournament. And I say that here at LSU, when I might need that 68th spot this season. If it’s beneficial for the tournament and something that should have been done, that’s OK. But you don’t want it going to 72 a few years from now.”

The four women’s regionals this season are slated for Bridgeport, Connecticut; Greensboro, North Carolina; Wichita, Kansas and Spokane, Washington. The women’s Final Four is at Target Center in Minneapolis from April 1-3.

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