Hit the road

The NCAA Tournament's new "pod" system works just fine, but it needs an adjustment to prevent this weekend's "home" games.

Published March 18, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

I told you I'd wait until after the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament before I formed an opinion on the NCAA's new system of assigning teams to sites. The first weekend is over, two rounds complete, and I think the new system has some merit, but it needs work.

The Tournament's traditional arrangement has been to divide each of the four regions into two eight-team subregionals. This has resulted in many teams traveling cross-country to play their first- and possibl second-round games. This year, the NCAA experimented with dividing the eight-team subregionals into four-team "pods," with each of the eight subregional sites playing host to two pods, without regard to what region the pods belonged to. The system was weighted to put higher seeds in sites closer to home.

This is a good thing. The new system rewards high seeds for their good seasons by making it easier and cheaper for their fans to get to the sites and support them. But there's been much comment on the three teams that derived near home-court advantages: Texas, Illinois and Pittsburgh. The Longhorns, the sixth seed in the Midwest, were sent to Dallas, a city that all but worships them; the Illini, No. 4 in the Midwest, went to Chicago, where they play some home games; and the Panthers, the third seed in the South, were assigned to a building that isn't their home court but is in their home city.

All three of those teams won their first two games and advanced to the Sweet 16. Texas, with a win over No. 3 Mississippi State, was the only one that needed an upset to do it.

Except for Pitt, which ruined my St. Patrick's Day by beating my alma mater, California, none of this is exactly a tragedy. Still, you shouldn't be playing what amount to home games in the NCAA Tournament if it can be avoided. It isn't called the road to the Final Four for nothing. At the very least, if someone's going to get a hometown privilege, it ought to be a top seed, not a random 3, 4 or 6.

How difficult would it have been to trade third seed Pittsburgh from the South to the East for Georgia? Instead of Pitt playing at home in Pittsburgh and Georgia going to Chicago, Pitt would have traveled to Chicago, not exactly burdensome, and Georgia would have gone to Pittsburgh -- a wash for the Bulldogs, distancewise if not pizzawise.

Illinois could be traded for East No. 4 Kentucky, but that would have put the Illini in St. Louis, also almost a home game, though I suppose one could argue that you have to draw the line someplace, and if it's OK for Duke to play in Greenville, S.C., it's OK for Illinois to play in St. Louis. All right, fine, but Illinois also could have switched with No. 4 Ohio State in the West, which would have put the Illini in Albuquerque, which is a hike, but it's about 400 miles less of a hike than it was for the Buckeyes, who were Big Ten tournament champions, for what that's worth, and who were upset by Missouri Saturday.

The clear choice for a trade with Texas would have been Cal, the sixth seed in the South, which would have at least put the Bears within two time zones of home. The Longhorns would have had to travel to Pittsburgh.

There were a few lower seeds that ended up uncomfortably close to home too. Penn, the 11th seed in the South, played in Pittsburgh; Southern Illinois, No. 11 in the East, in Chicago; and Hampton, the 15th seed in the East, in Washington. Hampton could have gone to Dallas and sent Illinois-Chicago to Washington, and Penn and Southern Illinois could have switched. Again, no tragedies here. These weren't quite home games. But why should double-digit seeds be getting any advantage at all? Hampton and Penn were bounced in their first games. Southern Illinois, in my opinion a much better team than an 11, pulled upsets over No. 6 Texas Tech and No. 3 Georgia to go to the Sweet 16. (I'd argue that the Texas Tech win wasn't an upset.)

I thought going in that dividing up the regions into "pods" would spoil one part of the Tournament's atmosphere. Part of the fun of watching any one subregional, I thought, is knowing that the eight teams scrapping on a single floor are all in the same bracket. Two of the eight teams present for that first weekend will graduate to the Sweet 16, where they'll play each other. Having four teams that are trying for one regional final and four teams that are trying for a different one on the same program would somehow dilute the show.

I found this not to be the case at all. Watching four teams from the East and four teams from the Midwest in St. Louis, it didn't matter at all to me that the two teams that would emerge -- Kansas and Kentucky, as it happened -- were going to different regional sites.

The NCAA has my permission to stay with the "pod" system next year. Just get rid of those home games.

Last year at Tournament time I received several e-mails accusing me of sexism for not writing about the concurrent women's Tournament. I felt bad about ignoring the women, not because I worry that anyone will think I'm sexist but because I like women's basketball just fine.

The reason I ignored it is that I just didn't have the time to follow it. Though women's basketball has made tremendous strides in each of the last two decades, it remains a minor sport in media terms. It takes some real effort to stay current. Women's basketball doesn't make the front of the sports section unless you have a national powerhouse in your area. Women's games are on TV throughout the year, but there isn't the media saturation the men's game has. There's no endless pontificating about women's basketball on the sports networks, and it rarely rates more than a mention in the major magazines.

Even if you wanted to follow women's basketball closely without investing heavily in satellite or cable packages, you'd be frustrated. ESPN has the rights to the women's Tournament, and exercises those rights by showing games as long as there are no men's games going on. So on the first three days of the women's Tourney, which started Friday, you could only watch a game or two before the men's games started or after they ended. There's no direct competition with CBS's men's coverage.

I wish I had the time to make that effort to follow women's basketball, but I don't. Most of my colleagues in the typing classes don't like to talk about subjects in which they can't at least pretend to be experts. That's one of the reasons you don't see the talking heads debating the women's bracket on the cable shows.

Well, you must have figured out by now that I have no such compunction. I'll tell you what I know: UConn and Oklahoma are very good this year. Purdue, Stanford, Notre Dame, Tennessee and Louisiana Tech are among the usual powers, but I gather from the seedings that they haven't dominated this year. Indiana, I noted in the papers last week, got hot and won the Big Ten tournament after a so-so regular season. Duke and Vanderbilt, with No. 1 seeds, are no doubt good teams.

I decided to use the women's Tournament to conduct a sort of experiment. I filled out a bracket without doing any further research. In other words, it's pretty much a random bracket. I picked mostly favorites, but threw in a few upsets, chosen by whim. I wanted to see how my women's bracket would compare with my men's bracket, chosen with what I like to think of as actual knowledge about the men's game.

You're probably ahead of me. My women's bracket kicked butt on my men's bracket. While I went a not-so-hot 20-12 in the first round of the men's Tourney, I was a solid 24-8 with the women. Defining an upset as a lower seed beating a higher seed, I predicted four of the seven upsets (Iowa over Virginia, BYU over Florida, Tulane over Colorado State and Villanova over Pepperdine) and was wrong in predicting five others. On the men's side I predicted two of the seven upsets (Kent State over Oklahoma State and Southern Illinois over Texas Tech), and was wrong in predicting seven others.

Eight of my men's picks made the Sweet 16. On the women's side, I was right about five of the first eight teams in the Sweet 16, with all eight of my remaining choices still alive and playing second-round games Monday. (I've picked the higher seed in all eight games.) My men's Final Four are all still alive. I had Baylor, bounced Sunday, in the women's Final Four.

I'm not sure what this proves other than the power of dumb luck or my inability to accurately assess men's college basketball teams, neither of which is exactly stop-the-presses stuff.

But I'm feeling pretty good about my own competition with Sports Illustrated's "council of wise guys," who filled out a bracket in the March 18 issue. The wise guys picked three more first-round winners than I did, but like me they got only eight teams into the third round, and one of their Final Four teams (USC) is already gone.

I don't know if I'll beat the council of wise guys in our little pool. But next year I'll remind you how lame I was this year. Let's see if they do the same.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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