Exhale, New Orleans.
The women’s Final Four has recognizable names to market when Connecticut, Notre Dame, Louisville and Cal arrive Thursday ahead Sunday evening’s national semifinals.
That is a victory after what transpired last weekend when fifth-seeded Louisville, a 24-point underdog, ousted No. 1 overall seed Baylor in the Oklahoma City Regional.
And ruined well-crafted marketing plans.
If anything, the Elite Eight matchups Monday and Tuesday might have left members of the New Orleans Sports Commission and ESPN queasy. Imagine this quartet landing Thursday: Cal, Louisville, Duke and Kentucky.
The lineup would have spoken to progress in all-too-scant parity. Awful for TV ratings and walk-up ticket sales at New Orleans Arena, though.
Instead, the city gets a fine blend in a worthy Golden Bears squad contrasted with the brand of the Huskies.
Yet, the disparity between upper-echelon programs in women’s basketball and their peers is still stark and unhealthy, a fact no amount of production sheen and gloss can cover up.
Louisville’s Sweet 16 upset of Baylor is chief evidence.
The Cardinals were ranked No. 16 entering the tournament, finished third in the Big East Conference — which has three teams in the Final Four — and occupies the No. 22 spot in the Ratings Percentage Index against a No. 39 strength of schedule.
But in the aftermath of fending off the Bears, who rallied from 19 points down, ESPN analysts Kara Lawson and Caroline Peck framed it in the same terms of a No. 16 seed toppling a top seed in the men’s tournament.
The sentiment is partly why the women’s game will continue to struggle: Why care when your team, even if it’s a reasonable seed, is expected to get drummed by 30 points?
If the men’s NCAA tournament is built on upsets and madness, the women’s event predicates its proceedings on chalk and ritual. ESPN’s marketing of the event seems to bank on it — an array of montages featuring known commodities such as a UConn coach Geno Auriemma, Notre Dame guard Skylar Diggins and (now) former Baylor forward Brittney Griner.
But the four teams are a good sign for the game.
Louisville is back for the first time since 2009.
Cal is making its first trip to the Final Four, but averaging only 2,400 fans at home games in Berkely doesn’t speak to a fanbase frothing to pack the French Quarter.
But Connecticut and Notre Dame offset the difference, and bring cache along with recognizable names. They’ll square off for a fourth time this season in one semifinal, while Cal and Louisville meet in another.
That makes Tuesday’s national title tilt an intriguing contrast: Entrenched Power vs. Upstart Insurgent.
Whether the seats are filled, relatively speaking, to see progress is another matter.