The NCAA Tournament has moved to a system where they give geographic preference to top seeds in recent years, sometimes at the expense of bracket balance. However, this year is going to test the geography and leave several high seeds with shattered dreams of playing at their preferred locales.
The problem is this–the NCAA tries to book the eight first round locations by dividing them roughly by region, but the regions don’t actually reflect the balance of where the top teams are located. This year, we have sites in Pittsburgh and Charlotte (East), Nashville and Dallas (South), Detroit and Wichita (Midwest), and Boise and San Diego (West).
The one region that always has two opening week locations is the West. I went through the last decade of tournaments, though, and in looking at the top 6 seeds in each bracket (the kind that could get geographic preference), the breakdown of actual top seeds by geographic region (as generally defined by where the regional finals are held) is as follows:
West – 14%
Midwest – 36%
East – 27%
South – 23%
The East (if we consider the Carolinas as representing the southern edge of the East Region) and the South (if we include the South to go from Georgia and Florida in the East, to Texas and Oklahoma in the West, and Kentucky to the north) are pretty balanced in terms of the teams and hosting sites.
But, the Midwest has way more quality teams than sites, while the West gets more first round sites than teams to fill them. The Midwest, as it has been generally categorized, has lots of top teams, and a high volume of other teams that emerge in a given year. Not only does it have most of the basketball powers of the Big Ten, but you also have half the Big East (Xavier, Marquette, Creighton, Butler), top programs from the Big 12, and powers from the American Conference like Cincinnati and Wichita State. Kentucky and Louisville are also closer geographically to many of the Midwest sites than southern locations when it comes to site preference.
That situation is particularly pronounced this year. Half of the sites this year are west of Kansas City, the first time that has been the case in over a decade. Add to that a down year for the Pac-12, and we may be looking at a situation where no team west of Lubbock, Texas is seeded better than a 5-seed. (Compare that to last year, where Gonzaga, Arizona, Oregon, and UCLA were all top 3 seeds).
The result is going to be this: lots of teams will be moving West in the tournament, and may not be happy about missing out on a local site. The only sites I am comfortable projecting is that Virginia and Duke are going to be in Charlotte, Villanova will go to Pittsburgh, and Kansas will be in Wichita.
But with so many Great Lakes region teams looking like top four seeds (Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Cincinnati, Xavier, West Virginia) and other Southern teams (North Carolina, Auburn, Tennessee) maybe also getting squeezed out, things are going to get messy for everyone.
It would be a disaster for the Detroit hosting site, for example, if neither Michigan or Michigan State is playing there despite being top options, and are instead playing elsewhere at the same time. But that could very well happen.
Here’s a potential walkthrough of going down a seed list and bracketing to give the next team up the closest remaining site:
#1 Virginia goes to Charlotte
#2 Villanova goes to Pittsburgh
#3 Xavier goes to Detroit (Cincinnati is 263 miles to Detroit, 273 to Nashville and 288 to Pittsburgh)
#4 Kansas goes to Wichita
#5 Duke takes the 2nd Charlotte spot
#6 Purdue takes 2nd Detroit spot
#7 Cincinnati takes Nashville
#8 North Carolina takes 2nd Pittsburgh spot (slightly closer than Nashville but still a 7+ hour drive, so now that option is closed to Michigan and Michigan State
#9 Michigan takes 2nd Nashville spot (ahead of either SEC contender)
#10 Auburn then has to go to Dallas 700 miles away
#11 Michigan State then goes to 2nd Wichita spot 900 miles away
#12 Tennessee takes 2nd Dallas spot 840 miles away, foreclosing Texas Tech and Wichita State from being relatively close enough for fans
#13-16 Wichita State, Clemson, Texas Tech, and maybe West Virginia all go to Boise and San Diego. Even if one is the higher seed, Arizona and Gonzaga will probably be the 5-seeds out West.
That’s a disaster scenario, but one that could play out. Less than half of the sites will have a top seed located within 500 miles. That, despite the fact that most of the teams were within 300 miles of at least one site, and within 500 miles of at least two. A truly balanced bracket might send a couple of the teams out West but avoid shifting everyone 700 miles+ away. Wichita State and Texas Tech could get bumped out of natural fanbase locations in Dallas, because Auburn and Tennessee were bumped out of Nashville, because Michigan or Michigan State were bumped out of Detroit or North Carolina bumped out of Charlotte.
It’s also going to lead to the almost certain situation where all the 4/5 seeds are out West and the 3/6/11 seeds are in Dallas and Wichita, and the committee will need to avoid sending any of the First Four from Dayton to a Western site for travel on short rest reasons. It may be unavoidable.
The ordering of the seed list for the Top 16 teams is going to be vitally important, and the Committee should be focused on it instead of dealing with bubble teams on Friday and Saturday.
The solution to this problem in the future is to not be so hidebound by geography, or to shift the sites so they more accurately reflect where the majority of the top college basketball teams are. Don’t have two Western first round sites every year that are West of Denver, and don’t have a situation where half of the eight sites are West of Kansas City.