Saturday, March 22, 2008

Yesterday in Tampa/St. Pete

As the late game wound down last night, announcers breathlessly reported that history was being made in the Tampa/St. Pete area, as all four games at the St. Pete Times Forum were won by the lower seed, including two overtime games (Western KY over Drake and San Diego over UConn).

While it was an exciting day of basketball for the fans, it also is the kind of day that could only happen in today's NCAA Tournament.

The pod system, started a few years ago, separates subregional sites from regional sites, and 'protects' favorites (the top seeds in each bracket). The highest seeds rarely travel more than an hour from campus, like UNC (playing in Raleigh, NC) and UCLA (playing in Anaheim, CA).

But protecting the top seeds means the middle-seeds -- the 4s and 5s -- are left with the vagaries of the travel schedule. Yesterday's 'favorites' in Tampa were UConn and Vanderbilt (4-seeds) and Drake and Clemson (5-seeds). All four schools had long trips to get to western Florida.

Of course, much credit must given to the 'underdogs' in each game; after all, Siena, Villanova, Western Kentucky, and San Diego had to travel as well. But it is well known that the 5/12 games are ripe for upsets, and the 4/13 games also often pit well-matched teams. The Tournament Selection Committee often seems to reward strong regular season performers with these seeds, even if the performance has dropped off by the end of the year (see: UConn and Vandy).

Finally, only with the pod system could we have so many upsets on a single day. Before the pods, every sub-regional site was headlined with either a 1- or 2-seed. So a day that included a #16 over a #1 (which has, of course, never happened) or a #15 over a #2 (which has happened only a handful of times) would be itself historic (and unlikely), let alone part of day where 3 other upsets were occurring at the same site.

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