Two seasons ago in the NCAA tournament, Georgetown University and University of Maryland, two D.C. area schools separated by less than 10 miles, met in the Sweet 16 in Anaheim on the opposite coast of the country, roughly 3,000 miles away from the nation’s capital. The NCAA basketball committee was openly criticized as many thought it was illogical to force our nation’s best “student-athletes,” to travel cross country when they have critical Strategies in Coaching Basketball – taught by Jim Harrick, Jr. – to attend.
What resulted? The committee instituted the pod system, which scheduled games featuring the nation’s best teams – the top four seeds in each region – in arenas in close proximity to their campuses.
Last week, Syracuse University and University of Texas each punched tickets to the Final Four this weekend in New Orleans after essentially playing home games in Albany and San Antonio respectively.
There is nothing wrong with placing the Longhorns in San Antonio, as Texas deserved to play close to home after encompassing a twenty-eight win season, while arguably facing the nation’s toughest schedule.
Syracuse, however were a number three seed and rocked Oklahoma University on Sunday in a sea of orange that only contained 1,000 Sooner fans in an arena with a 16,000 seat capacity. Jim Boeheim’s team was able to hop on a bus and drive two hours east on the New York State Thruway, while the Big 12 champion and number one seed Oklahoma flew cross-country.
Before Sunday’s game 2003 Big 12 player Hollis Price refused to let his teammates use Syracuse’s obvious home court advantage as an excuse.
“We can’t complain because that’s what we wanted – to be a No. 1 seed,” Price said. “It happened, and we just have to take what’s handed to us. We’re here in Albany, it’s Syracuse at home, but we’ve got our opportunity because the game is [starting] 0-0. It’s not going to be Syracuse, 10-0. So we’ve still got a chance to get the win.”
Syracuse’s vaulted 2-3 zone presented Oklahoma – most notably Price, who endured a horrid 3-17 shooting performance – with enough fits that the Orange would have won whether the game was played in Albany, Ore., Albania or Norman, Okla.
Although Kelvin Sampson, who is probably one of the game’s classiest coaches, did not publicly blame the location of the game on the loss, his team surely must have questioned whether the result would have been different if the game was played in the Midwest. Nevertheless, senior guard Quannas White was valiant in defeat when asked about the game’s placement in Albany. “It was fair. You’ve got to be tough enough to overcome things,” White said.
In the recent past, March Madness has been lauded by sports fans as the best three weeks in sports, while the BCS – college football’s system for determining a national champion – has been excoriated for being a cash cow that is designated to make money for the NCAA and its sponsors first and to crown the best team on the field last. One must question whether the implementation of the pod system has similar aims.
When award winning basketball author John Feinstein was asked to voice his opinion of the pod system a week before it was introduced in last year’s tourney, he responded by saying, “I’m basically against it. I don’t want to condemn it until I see how it plays out this year. My instinct is that it’s going to lead to less upsets in the early rounds because the higher seeded [teams] will be playing in front of home crowds. I understand why they’re doing it – boost attendance a little bit, give kids’ families a chance to see them. What I would suggest is that they take some of their $6 billion dollar TV contract and pay for the families to travel.”
Feinstein was right. For all the close contests that the first two rounds produced in this year’s tournament, only one mid-major – the Bulldogs of Butler University – advanced to the Sweet 16.
The NCAA could care less that Drew Nicholas is missing class as long as he provides a buzzer-beating three to provide fans with “one shining moment” that will be shown endlessly over these three weeks of coverage. Stanford University sends teaching assistants and exam proctors on the road with their basketball team during the tournament so the Cardinal players don’t get behind on their studies. In that case does it matter then if Stanford is playing in San Francisco or San Juan?
The NCAA is threatening to debase sport’s best event by its necessity to make as much money as possible. The NCAA tournament is supposed to produce the nation’s best basketball team, not produce the most money for an organization that is supposedly founded on amateurism. That being said Syracuse will probably win the national title next Monday night.
Rybaltowski can be reached at email@example.com.