UK Women's Basketball

Rupp Arena to host women's NCAA tourney regionals in 2016-18

Kentucky Wildcats guard Jennifer O'Neill (0) takes the floor against the Baylor Bears at Rupp Arena Monday, Nov. 17, 2014 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Amy Wallot
Kentucky Wildcats guard Jennifer O'Neill (0) takes the floor against the Baylor Bears at Rupp Arena Monday, Nov. 17, 2014 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Amy Wallot Herald-Leader

On his courtside dry erase board, Matthew Mitchell couldn't have drawn it up any better.

If the Kentucky women's basketball coach and his team do their part, the Cats' road to the program's first-ever Final Four could require them to travel less than a mile for three consecutive seasons.

"It gives us a pathway, if we take care of our business, to Final Fours for three straight years and we're excited about that," UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart told the Herald-Leader after Thursday's NCAA announcement that Rupp Arena will host region tournaments in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

"Hopefully, as you look forward, magic happens."

Based on the women's tournament rules as they work now, if UK is one of the tourney's top 16 seeds, the Cats would host the first two rounds of the tournament on their home floor (Memorial Coliseum) and then play in Rupp, which is considered a neutral site.

As long as UK doesn't play three or more games in Rupp Arena in 2016, 2017 or 2018, it would still be considered a neutral site, NCAA spokesman Rick Nixon said.

"The opportunity to play in a venue we're familiar with and have a chance to get to three straight Final Fours is really special," Barnhart said. "There's many programs in the last 15-20 years that have built pathways to Final Fours through venues they're familiar with.

"We hope this is something special for our program in terms of us being able to generate deep championship runs we all dream of."

It happens regularly for teams like Connecticut, which in 2013 played at home for the first two rounds before heading to nearby Bridgeport, Conn., for the regional tournament.

In both 2016 and 2018, Kentucky would never have to get on a plane if it were to advance to a Final Four, which the school has not done, going 0-for-4 in region championship games, including three trips to the Elite Eight since 2010.

If UK were to be a top-16 seed, it would host the first two rounds in Memorial Coliseum, then the region semifinals and finals would be played in Rupp Arena, followed by a trip to Indianapolis for the Final Four.

In 2018, the path would be the same except the Final Four moves to Columbus, Ohio. The 2017 Final Four will be played in Dallas.

"Familiarity is a wonderful thing, so to be able to be close to home, to know where your meals are coming from, to know what pillow you're putting your head on at night, all those things are really helpful," Barnhart said. "For us to be able to have that kind of path would be incredibly desirable."

These will be the first women's basketball tournament games played in Rupp Arena since Texas won the Final Four there in 1986. The Rupp regionals are scheduled for March 25-28 in 2016, March 24-27 in 2017 and March 23-26 in 2018.

At the tournament site announcement, NCAA vice president for women's basketball championships Anucha Brown called Lexington "a great basketball hotbed."

The city's centralized location helped it become the only host city to land all three seasons, Brown said.

"If you look at a city like Lexington, it's within driving distance for hundreds of schools," she said. "We've always seen really positive growth in the tournament when we have those potential sites."

Kentucky's Mitchell was out of town at his daughter's wedding in Mississippi and was unavailable for comment on Thursday, but Barnhart said the two spoke.

"He was excited, needless to say," the athletic director said. "He was pretty fired up."

Barnhart, who said UK unsuccessfully had put in bids to host at Rupp Arena previously and will continue to bid as often as possible, was fired up over what the news means for all involved.

"It's another opportunity for us to showcase Lexington and the University of Kentucky," he said. "I hope it generates the path for us that allows us to experience Final Fours."

The regional sites for this season are Oklahoma City, Sacramento, Calif., Greensboro, N.C., and Albany, N.Y. The first two rounds in 2015 again will be played on campus sites with the top 16 seeded teams hosting the sub-regionals. The Final Four is in Tampa.