The NCAA Tournament Is Set: Where’s The Best Place To Be?

You’ve undoubtedly already heard or read a lot of pontificating about what the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee did right and wrong in yesterday’s bracket announcement. I’ve got my opinions too of course–I found Xavier getting into the field to be annoying, Iona making it to be stunning, Drexel missing to be disappointing and Pac-12 champ Washington missing to be positively infuriating. I found South Florida being relegated to a play-in game to be ridiculous, and I’m personally pumped to watch Pat Knight and Lamar get their chance in the First Four against Vermont.

But while the stuff about who should’ve been a #1 or #2 seed is interesting enough (I had Kansas and Missouri both on the top line in my own projected bracket), but it really doesn’t matter. Those teams all get their chance to play their way to New Orleans and the 2012 Final Four. On Tuesday and Wednesday, TheSportsNotebook will do its own final bracket selections, along with previewing the “First Four” games that go from Dayton on those nights. Today let’s have some fun and put a different spin on the bracket. Instead of playing bracketologist or handicapper, let’s play travel agent. There’s eight cities hosting first and second-round games this weekend. Which ones would offer the most entertainment? TheSportsNotebook breaks them down, looking at the quality of the matchups–both straight basketball and storyline–along with the potential crowd atmosphere. We’ll go through all eight and then determine what the best travel schedule would be for a college hoops junkie from Thursday thru Sunday.

Duke-Lehigh, Notre Dame-Xavier
North Carolina-Lamar/Vermont, Creighton-Alabama
Comments: Those that have read Memories of March Madness, the short easy-to-read recap of the modern NCAA Tournament written by yours truly, have learned about Black Saturday in 1979. When North Carolina and Duke fell in their same state (Raleigh in this case) and opened the door for Penn to be the last Ivy League team to reach the Final Four. Could it happen here? I don’t know about that, but the atmosphere will be raucous, and when UNC and Duke aren’t on the floor, you’ve got good games with Creighton-Alabama and Notre Dame-Xavier. As much as I’ve ripped on Xavier for their disappointing play since some temporary December suspensions threw off their chemistry, they can certainly beat the Irish and they’ve got the guards to match up with Duke in the backcourt. Creighton has the best player you’ve never seen in Doug McDermott. So you get either a good game or a crazy local crowd. Greensboro would be a fun spot to be.

Ohio State-Loyola MD, Gonzaga-West Virginia
Syracuse-UNC Asheville, Kansas State-Southern Miss
Comments: The top pod is perfect, with Buckeye fans and Moutaineer rooters ready to converge on Pittsburgh, and Gonzaga-WVA being a good game in the first round. I suppose you can’t be too unhappy about having one of the nation’s best teams in your group, but I’ve always felt that the second weekend is when you want to see the top teams–unless you think a live upset might be in the works. I doubt Kansas State can take down the Orange and Southern Miss belongs in the First Four with the way they fell apart down the stretch.

Michigan State-Long Island, Memphis-St. Louis
San Diego State-N.C. State, Georgetown-Belmont
Comments: This isn’t bad, but I feel like it could have been better. The top pod is good, with Michigan State ready to bring its fans, and Memphis should be ready to counter, with it being a pretty reasonable drive north to Columbus. I wonder if the kids from D.C. will be motivated to drive up and support Georgetown. It’s a doable drive, but it is a good 8-9 hour haul, and I wonder if the matchups Georgetown has are going to be enough to motivate. I guess I would prefer that a different pod might have been substituted for the bottom group. You can’t put Ohio State’s group here, which given West Virginia’s presence in it too, would have been ideal, but you can take a look at the Michigan part of the Nashville pod further down. If nothing else, you put enough Ohio State and Michigan fans in the same building for two days and something interesting’s bound to happen. Either they have outbreaks of conference pride and root for each other, then hate themselves in the morning. Or they start fights, wake up in jail cells in the morning, but feel good about themselves.

Kentucky vs. Miss Valley State/Western Kentucky, Iowa St vs. UConn
Murray State vs. Colorado State, Marquette vs. BYU/Iona
Comments: I get a negative vibe about this one, mainly because you’ll have to deal with a huge contingent of obnoxious Kentucky fans in games where they are not likely to be tested, with due apologies to Iowa State or UConn. So that’s two games out of six that are going to be non-competitive. A huge positive for this venue is that you might be witness to the last game of UConn legend Jim Calhoun, depending on how his health shapes up over the summer. The fun games here would be with nearby Murray State probably bringing a nice group of fans. They’ve got a tough draw against a hot Colorado State team and a second-rounder with Marquette would be a very spirited affair. Speaking of Marquette, the chance for a 3 vs. 14 upset are very realistic if BYU beats Iona in the play-in game. Still, on balance, this strikes me as a mediocre package for the neutral fan.

Cincinnati-Texas, Florida State-St. Bonaventure
Temple-Cal/South Florida, Michigan-Ohio
Comments: What I like most about this group is that you can realistically hope for a significant upset in every first-round game. Florida State played great in the ACC Tournament, but if they lose focus–and as games like a midseason loss to Boston College showed, they are more than capable–then St. Bonaventure’s Andrew Nicholson, an outstanding post presence, can make them pay for it. South Florida played great in the Big East, and as mentioned above, should not be seeded this low. Which brings us to a direct byproduct of the hose job the committee did on Stan Heath’s Bulls–it also reduces the seed value for Temple at #5, because now they get a team that should be, at worst, playing in an 8-9 game. And if they get Cal, that’s not exactly a breather, as the Golden Bears have good talent and just haven’t put it altogether. CBS’ Seth Greenberg identified them as the best of the play-in teams, and while I don’t think Cal got a bad deal on seeding, I agree their potential is tremendous. Either way, Temple didn’t get much of a reward for a 5-seed. Finally, Texas is a young team that played Kansas, Missouri and Baylor all tough in the regular season and can certainly beat Cincinnati. Michigan is soft inside and Ohio is the same program that upended Georgetown in 2010. So you could be screaming for the underdog all weekend long, and the geographic proximity means Cincy, Michigan and perhaps Temple will bring a group of fans. Nashville is the sleeper in this whole silly discussion we’re having here.

Missouri-Norfolk State, Florida-Virginia
St. Mary’s-Purdue, Kansas-Detroit
Comments: It’s the Big 12 version of Greensboro, and Kansas and Mizzou fans will keep the joint hopping all weekend. St. Mary’s-Purdue is a really good game, while Florida-Virginia is a pretty good one. Where I think this becomes most interesting is if Florida wins the first game, because the Gators have the talent to make Missouri sweat. I can’t say I feel the same about the Gaels or Boilmakers doing that to Kansas. Still, good job by the committee in putting this one together.

Baylor-South Dakota State, UNLV-Colorado State
Vanderbilt-Harvard, Wisconsin-Montana
Comments: Look, I’m a Wisconsin fan so I’d go. UNLV and Colorado State might bring a decent number of fans, half of whom will leave after a first-round loss. The Pit, one of college basketball’s great homecourt environments when New Mexico is here, might be as quiet as a crowd at The Masters. Albuqerque can only hope that Wisconsin-Vanderbilt give them a great game in the second round and that the presence of Harvard creates a Jeremy Lin sighting. If that happens, all bets are off.

Indiana vs. New Mexico State, Wichita State vs. VCU
New Mexico vs. Long Beach State, Louisville vs. Davidson
Comments: I would expect Indiana to travel well, and you’ll get a good storyline with a lot of them gladly rooting for New Mexico coach Steve Alford, the former Mr. Basketball in Indiana as a high school player, leader of IU’s 1987 NCAA title team and general all-around hero in the Hoosier State. The problem is that type of fan crossover is what’s going to be needed to juice up the arena, because who do you see that’s in good traveling distance? From a pure basketball standpoint Wichita State-VCU is a good game, and a Wichita-Indiana matchup in the second round would be a fabulous game. But if it’s just about a good basketball game, you can watch that on TV. If you’re going to a game you want atmosphere and Portland won’t give it.

There’s our eight choices. I’ve probably already given away that I think Greensboro, Omaha and Nashville are the best trips on the board. The cases for Greensboro and Omaha were very similar, and I rate the ACC venue a little bit better, just because I think the competitiveness of the two games involving non-powerhouses are slightly better. But I like Nashville better than any of them. I’ve had the chance to go to these first and second-round games a few times and while it looks juicy to see a powerhouse team go on the board, what it means in practice is that you’re going to see at least one, and perhaps two boring games out of the six on your card.

That’s why I like the Nasvhille bracket, which plays Friday and Sunday. There’s also more to do there on the off-day if you don’t want to sit in your motel and watch more basketball you can take in the Grand ‘Ol Opry on Saturday night. Or, as much as I knocked the Louisville bracket, that goes Thursday/Saturday, so you could drive up, pick up some second-round tickets from fans selling them off after their teams lost on Thursday and hit two games before driving back. It sounds like a pretty good overall deal to me.  I might not be traveling this weekend, as I get set to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Milwaukee. But if I was going to do a basketball excursion, Nasvhille would be the place to be.