The NCAA Selection Committee revealed their initial listing of 16 teams as the top seeds for this year’s tournament. There weren’t too many surprises, I got 15 of the 16 in my latest projections, and had most on the correct seed line and no one more than a seed line off.
But something stands out to me again, the geographical imbalance in college basketball versus how the venues are assigned. The NCAA moved to a model where they started sending teams to pods which could theoretically keep top teams closer to their geographic base in the first two rounds. The higher seeds get preference on geography. But the NCAA assigns the eight first round venues largely on a rotation based on regions. The West region, which could generally be seen as the large area that includes both the Pacific and Mountain Time Zones, always gets two hosting sites in the initial rounds.
This belies the actual distribution of where top college teams are based. It has a real, practical effect that more top teams (and teams in general) travel further. The western venues are often filled, by the #4 seeds who happen to get the worst draw. This has the additional downside, as the committee tries to adjust the bracket to account for the teams playing in Dayton, that the final at-larges, which can often be 12th seeds, are limited in where they can travel because half the potential venues that include the 4/5/12/13 seeds are out West.
Last year, the San Diego venue had one team from 683 miles away (New Mexico State) and otherwise featured two teams each from West Virginia and South Carolina, and teams from Alabama, Kansas, and Kentucky. The average distance of the eight teams from San Diego last year was 1,928 miles.
Take a look at this year’s 16 teams. You have only two teams from what the Pacific and Mountain time zones (Gonzaga and Nevada). That’s in line with the last decade, where 2.1 teams from those time zones have been top 4 seeds per year, and we have had only one season where four of them were from the West. Meanwhile, seven teams are from Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, and Kentucky, schools all a short distance from locations like Indianapolis and cities in Ohio.
If you went by the current ordering of teams, you would have the following as the likely destinations:
#1 Duke goes to Columbia, SC
#2 Tennessee goes to Columbia, SC
#3 Virginia goes to Columbus, OH (thus taking a spot from all those Midwestern teams)
#4 Gonzaga goes to Salt Lake City, UT
#5 Kentucky also goes to Columbus, OH
As a result, #6 Michigan has to go to Des Moines, IA
#7 North Carolina goes to Jacksonville, FL
#8 Michigan State also goes to Des Moines, IA
#9 Purdue, then, has to go to Tulsa, OK
#10 Kansas also goes to Tulsa, OK
#11 Houston, who would prefer Tulsa, now has to go to Jacksonville
#12 Marquette would go to Hartford, CT
#13 Iowa State would go to Salt Lake City, UT
#14 Nevada goes to San Jose, CA
#15 Louisville goes to Hartford, CT
#16 Wisconsin goes to San Jose CA
If one of the western opening week sites was instead in the Midwest/Great Lakes region, you would go from having 7 of the top-seeded teams within 500 miles of their home to having 11 playing that close. If, say the extra venue was in Lexington instead of Salt Lake, then several of the Midwest teams are closer, which has a domino effect of also keeping teams like Purdue, Houston, and Marquette closer to home, and making it so none of the #4 seeds (besides Nevada) are making a long journey out West.
Over the last decade, twice as many teams from Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio have been a top 4 seed in the NCAA tournament as those in the Pacific and Mountain time zones combined, yet twice as many first round venues are in the West. I applaud the NCAA for the change in the system, where you no longer have to go play games in the Midwest in the first week just because you were seeded in the Midwest Regional. I do think the general location of the four Regionals is fine. But if the NCAA wants to increase attendance and the friendliness for fans of the top teams in getting to tournament games, they would move toward providing only one far West venue in the opening round, and add another in the Midwest. The locations should more accurately reflect the reality of how teams are distributed. More teams would be within a reasonable travel distance if they altered that approach.