College Basketball Coverage: Where’s The Best Pod To Travel?

There’s going to be plenty of chances in the next couple days for everyone—TheSportsNotebook included—to make Final Four picks and talk about upset possibilities. But here on Selection Sunday Night, let’s look at the newly unveiled bracket from a different perspective. Let’s break it down by pod—the eight teams assigned to each of the opening weekend venues. Which would be the most fun to go if you had the time and money to just pick a spot and go?

The eight sites for the first and second-round games that start on Thursday and run through Sunday are as follows—Lexington, San Jose, Auburn Hills, Philadelphia, Salt Lake, Kansas City, Austin and Dayton. And yes, I said these were “first and second round” games, rather than second and third, as the NCAA appears intent on forcing everyone’s down throat. Calling the Tuesday & Wednesday play-in games as the “first round” is just asinine. Apparently we’re supposed to buy into the fact that 60 of 68 teams got first-round byes. But I digress.

When evaluating the quality of a pod, one of the first things I’m looking for is the likelihood of good fan presence—i.e., teams that are reasonably local. And that fan presence should be balanced throughout the four first-round games. Believe me, I’ve been to a few of these opening weekends and when you’re sitting in an arena that’s a virtual morgue, save a small fan section behind the bench cheering, it can suck out a lot of excitement. After that we’re naturally looking for quality matchups. As a matter of personal preference, I prefer a larger number of competitive games rather than seeing a single highly ranked team. Fans at these pods will sit through six games. I don’t care how much you love Duke, watching them blow out one team and maybe get one competitive game won’t make it fun sitting through the rest of the games.

So here we go. Here’s each pod, the games on tap and the grade given for fan-friendliness. Note that the eight teams are not a pure “bracket”. The second-round winners go their separate ways after the weekend.

Louisville vs. NC A&T/Liberty
Colorado State-Missouri

The atmosphere should be good at Rupp Arena. In addition to all the fans Louisville will bring, this is easily accessible for Butler, Marquette and Missouri as well. The downside is that Butler and MU don’t have huge fan bases, but the crowd they do bring will be focused and intense. And if the two teams play on Saturday that’s a preview of a rivalry game in the new-look Big East next season. The “Catholic 7” might have saved themselves from the realignment madness of football, but they’re still not above taking schools from Milwaukee and Indianapolis and calling it The Big East. Again though, I get off topic.

Louisville-Missouri would be the second-round matchup I would really want to be in the arena for. Mizzou might only be a nine-seed, but they’ve got the talent to hang with the Cards and I’m sure the house would be rocking.

GRADE: We’re going with a B, if only because I’m not sure if Missouri even gets to the second round, given that they’re the lower seed to begin with. But a Saturday of Louisville-Missouri and Butler-Marquette in Lexington isn’t bad and would make it rise to an A.

SAN JOSE (Thur/Sat)
Oklahoma State-Oregon
St. Louis-New Mexico State

There’s some reasonable basketball intrigue in these matchups, especially Cal playing close to home as a 12-seed. But the purely basketball storylines are for another day. Right now this just looks kind of dull from an atmosphere perspective.

GRADE: D, and if Oregon gets knocked out by Oklahoma State—and the Ducks are the 12-seed, that’s more Pac-12 fans going home early. I remember being in Philadelphia in 2009 on a Saturday when the game was Texas A&M-UConn and the arena was half-full and dead silent. Oklahoma State-St. Louis on Saturday could do that—again, it’s no knock on those schools or their fans. In fact, it’s a defense of them—they’re the ones getting robbed by this venue position.

Memphis-Middle Tenn/St. Mary’s
Michigan State-Valparaiso
Virginia Commonwealth-Akron
Michigan-South Dakota State

The Palace will be electric, with Michigan State and Michigan both here. Even better, there’s good games surrounding Sparty and the Wolverines. I love the matchup Memphis has, whichever play-in team they get between Middle Tennessee and St. Mary’s. You get a fun team in Virginia Commonwealth, and Akron is well-positioned to make a nice fan showing themselves.

GRADE: It’s an easy A, just thinking about Saturday’s potential doubleheader of Memphis-Michigan State and Virginia Commonwealth-Michigan. This is a classic case of games that are pretty good on the merits, and when you put them into a psyched-up arena it all just ratchets up a notch.

Pitt-Wichita State
New Mexico-Harvard

This looks good, and it’s even better if Wichita State could bring a nice crowd of fans and then beat Pitt. If you get to Saturday and have Gonzaga-Wichita and Arizona-New Mexico in this venue, and the place should be alive and well. The fact both the Zags and have Lobos have some pressure on them to live up to high seeds, while Arizona has to redeem a disappointing season and Pitt has to show it finally do something in March, give this pod a lot of storylines.

GRADE: I’m going A-, if only because I think Salt Lake is a hair short of Auburn Hills and I have to differentiate between the two somehow.

San Diego State-Oklahoma
Georgetown-Florida Gulf Coast

Duke and Georgetown’s fans will fill the place up, but the fact those teams won’t play each other this weekend mitigates this somewhat. The San Diego State-Oklahoma game is a fun one for purely basketball reasons, but I doubt too much of the crowd in attendance will care. Whomever plays Duke on Sunday, it should be fun—either Cincinnati will bring a lot of fans or it will be Creighton, with the country’s best player in Doug McDermott. Any doubt that every non-Duke fan in the building will rally behind McDermott if he gets in position to lead the way to an upset? The hidden X-factor in this whole thing is Florida Gulf Coast—they beat Miami back in November and should have been seeded higher than 15th. The Hoyas didn’t get any favors with this draw.

GRADE: B+, the lack of a crowd presence for San Diego State-OU is the only thing keeping this off the top line.

Wisconsin-Ole Miss
Kansas State-Boise State/LaSalle
Kansas-Western Kentucky
North Carolina-Villanova

This one’s got some juice. Just like The Palace in Auburn Hills, the Sprint Center will host two local teams in Kansas State and Kansas. Then you’ve got Roy Williams returning to his old stomping grounds, as the man who coached Kansas from 1989-2003. The Wisconsin fans can make a long drive and, the matchup of the disciplined Badgers against Ole Miss gunner Marshall Henderson provides a great contrast in styles. North Carolina-Villanova is a rematch of a 2009 Final Four game. Then let’s look ahead to Sunday. Wisconsin-Kansas State is a rematch of a 2008 second-round game. And can it really be any better than Kansas-North Carolina—Roy Williams against his old school right in Kansas City?

GRADE: A+–obviously some upsets could put a damper on things, but that’s true of everywhere. As the line goes in the old Rogers & Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!, “everything’s up to date in Kansas City.”

AUSTIN (Fri/Sun)
Florida-Northwestern State

The good people of Austin got robbed. There’s nothing here for the locals to get fired up about, it’s a long way to travel for just about everybody. Put it this way—it’s probably up to Northwestern State’s fans to carry the load here. The most we can say here is that UCLA-Minnesota is a rematch of a 1998 regional final that took place in San Antonio.

GRADE: F, if you’re a traveling fan of a team like Miami, make up for it by going to see spring practice at Texas or something.

DAYTON (Fri/Sun)
Notre Dame-Iowa State
Ohio State-Iona
Indiana-Long Island/James Madison
NC State-Temple

This is another bracket that looks really fun. Notre Dame, Ohio State and Indiana are all going to bring a lot of fans, and don’t underestimate the ability of N.C. State and Temple to travel. Think about how loud the arena will be on Sunday if Notre Dame-Ohio State hold form. Could be a little football trash-talk going on, as the Buckeye fans live under the delusion that they might have fared better than the Irish in the BCS National Championship Game, if not for the probation. There’s also a little history here—Indiana’s 1976 national title run, the last undefeated season, started in Dayton.

GRADE: This is another A-plus venue.

So we’ve got four venues that grade out with an A—Dayton, Kansas City, Auburn Hills and Salt Lake City, with Dayton and Kansas City rising above the rest with an A-plus. If you differentiate the two, I’m going Kansas City, but I’m a Wisconsin fan, so there’s more than a little bias mixed in there. Although regardless of who you root for, the prospect of going out for barbecued ribs in KC sounds like a nice way to spend time between games.

Overall, a pretty good job by the Selection Committee of keeping things fun for the fans at the local sites—at so long as you’re not in San Jose or Austin. My other nit to pick is that they should have set Philadelphia and Dayton on staggered dates and made it possible for the truly hard-core fan to drive between sites.

If you’re a neutral fan just looking for a place for good times, good basketball and a juiced atmosphere, go to Kansas City. TheSportsNotebook’s college basketball coverage tomorrow will shift to the nuts-and-bolts of betting the bracket.