Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Future of NCAA Pods that Almost Happened

Remember the plans to expand the NCAA field to 96 teams? While everyone was predicting doom and gloom, there was one benefit to the scrapped proposal. The new plan would have meant easier travel.

Right now the west coast is usually the land of misfit toys, the place where all the four and five seeds get sent. Consider the placement of the top seeds this year:

4 Maryland
5 Michigan St.
4 Purdue
5 Texas A&M

San Jose
4 Vanderbilt
5 Butler
3 New Mexico
6 Marquette

Oklahoma City
1 Kansas
2 Kansas St.

3 Pittsburgh
6 Xavier
2 Ohio St.
7 Oklahoma St.

New Orleans
3 Baylor
6 Notre Dame
1 Kentucky
8 Texas

1 Syracuse
8 Gonzaga
2 West Virginia
7 Clemson

3 Georgetown
6 Tennessee
2 Villanova
7 Richmond

1 Duke
8 California
4 Wisconsin
5 Temple

And this is not a one year trend. The Pac-10 was weaker last season, but if you look historically, the 4/5 seeds are much more likely to get shipped out west. The problem is that the best seeds get the spots closest to home, and in recent years teams in the East and Midwest have been more likely to get seeds 1-4. Meanwhile, while the WAC, MWC, and WCC have had some of the best teams in the country, those teams tend to be seeded 5-8.

But now consider one of the primary proposals for a 96 team tournament. The idea was to play the extra game on the Tuesday/Wednesday of the 2nd week. In other words, after the first weekend there would still be 32 teams left. And in the first week, instead of 16 four team pods, there would be 32 three team pods. The huge advantage of this is that more teams could be rewarded with shorter early round travel. Consider how this year’s field might have looked:

1 seeds – No change
2 seeds – 35 miles closer
3 seeds – 773 miles closer
4 seeds – 5550 miles closer
5 seeds – 4894 miles closer
6 seeds – 1042 miles closer
7 seeds – 3500 miles further
8 seeds – 3789 miles closer
Total - 12,583 miles closer

8 Gonzaga – 1894 miles closer
7 BYU – 252 miles closer
7 Clemson – 1425 miles further
7 Richmond – 1707 miles further

San Jose
8 California – 2324 miles closer
8 UNLV – 600 miles closer
8 Texas – 1029 miles further
7 Oklahoma St. – 620 miles further

Oklahoma City
1 Kansas – No change
2 Kansas St. – No change
3 Baylor – 168 miles closer
3 New Mexico – 359 miles closer

4 Purdue – 1404 miles closer
4 Wisconsin – 896 miles closer
5 Michigan St. – 1458 miles closer
5 Butler – 1682 miles closer

New Orleans
1 Kentucky – No change
4 Vanderbilt – 1471 miles closer
5 Texas A&M – 1258 miles closer
6 Marquette – 919 miles closer

1 Syracuse – No change
2 West Virginia – No change
2 Ohio St. – 35 miles closer
3 Pittsburgh – 246 miles closer

2 Villanova – No change
3 Georgetown – No change
4 Maryland – 1779 miles closer
5 Temple – 496 miles closer

1 Duke – No change
6 Tennessee – 397 miles closer
6 Xavier – 296 miles further
6 Notre Dame – 22 miles closer

First, the top lines are barely impacted because they get their first choice of location in the current system. Now Ohio St. and Pittsburgh can join Syracuse and West Virginia in Buffalo, but there are few changes overall. But then the big gain comes for the teams given 4 and 5 seeds. Now virtually every one of these teams is 1000 miles closer to home, with virtually no negative consequence. A few of the seven seeds now get shipped out west to fill in the final slots. But there is a net gain for the NCAA because more of the quality west coast teams get to stay close to home such as California and Gonzaga.

For the first time in the pod system, the west coast pods would finally have decent representation from the Pac-10, MWC, WAC, and WCC. These regions typically only have a couple of local teams and now they would have several. In fact, these west coast conferences would be 5429 miles closer to home, almost half of the overall gain. Instead of the Pacific Northwest being the toughest ticket to sell out, Gonzaga would have owned the region for the last decade.

But more importantly, more teams would get to play close to home in all parts of the country. With the top 8 seeds slotted 12,583 miles closer to home, many more fans could drive to see their team play. Right now, fans that want to travel to see their team have to make reservations to fly across the country on very shot notice. And that can be very expensive if you do not have a ton of frequent flyer miles.

Of course the disadvantage is that fans traveling to see the protected seeds would only get to see one game. But for many fans, one near-to-home, weekend game would be the perfect cap to the season.

And for fans that want to see multiple rounds, it gives them more time to make their reservations for the round of 32. The round of 32 would have been at least 9 days after the brackets were announced giving people enough time to make plans to fly to a now 8-team regional final.

I know this advantage was not going to convince anyone that a 96 team tournament was a good thing. But if you believe 68 teams is just the first step towards further expansion, I hope the second Tuesday plan continues to be discussed as a possibility.