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Sunday, March 10, 2002

Decisions, decisions: Pods muddle bracket outlook

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Prepare for the invasion of the pods.

No, it's just the NCAA Tournament, version 2002 not a science-fiction, body-snatching thriller. When the NCAA announces its men's field at 5 p.m. today, the bracket will look the same. But the way the teams are assigned to their first-round sites has undergone a radical change.

Teams will be assigned to the eight first-round sites in four-team pods. The highest-seeded team in a pod will be assigned to the site closest to the campus of the pod's top seed. The top four seeds will benefit from the geographical assignments.

"We wanted to keep more teams close to home," said North Carolina State athletic director Lee Fowler, chairman of the men's basketball tournament committee. "There will still be travel, because two-thirds of our schools are east of the Mississippi. What we hope (is) this will cut down on some of the travel."

The first- and second-round sites, basically, won't be assigned to a specific regional. For instance, Dallas originally designated as a Midwest Regional site could host a four-team pod where the two winners advance to the South Regional and a four-team pod that feeds to the West Regional.

Oklahoma, which could be a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, probably is headed to Dallas whether the Sooners are the No. 1 seed in the West or the No. 2 seed in the South.

Kansas, which should be a lock as a No. 1 seed, should stay relatively close to home, too St. Louis.

As they evolved over the years, the NCAA Tournament's selection, seeding and placement rules started to read like the United States Tax Code. It took more than just a beautiful mind to select the at-large teams, rank them and assign them to sites. In an effort to create a bracket balanced for competition, the committee often appeared to ignore the basics of geography and common sense.

Last year, rules triumphed over logic. Maryland, George Mason and Hampton three schools from the Washington area were placed in the West Region in Boise, Idaho. UCLA and Utah State (Greensboro, N.C.), Southern Cal and Southern Utah (Long Island, N.Y.) were placed in the East Region.

In July, the new system of assigning teams in four-team pods was presented to the tournament committee. Without changing the essential competitive balance of the bracket, the committee realized it was a change worth making.

"This is something we've been talking about for two or three years," Fowler said. "What happened last year might have brought it to a head."

Fowler and NCAA staff members emphasize that the bracket the staple of office pools won't look any different nor will the site assignments effect how the teams advance in the bracket. The teams will be placed in their regions first, then the top four seeds will be assigned to opening-round sites that are as close to their campuses as possible.

"We've been out West (five) of the past eight years," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "It's a real hardship on families to travel that far to see games. This way, hopefully, the parents of players will get to see games. Maybe this will help. I'm sure some schools are not going to like it. It might favor some of the higher-seeded teams who will get an easier road."

Williams' Maryland team, a likely No. 1 seed, is virtually assured of playing at the nearby MCI Center in Washington. Pittsburgh, which could be a No. 2 or 3 seed, could wind up playing in its home city in the Mellon Arena. For teams that face those teams in the second round, it might not feel like a neutral court.

"I think the thought is great, if you're going to be a top-four seed," Illinois coach Bill Self said. "If you're not a top-four seed, you don't look forward to going to a place where (your opponent has) the crowd advantage."

Teams that are seeded fifth and lower could wind up anywhere. Instead of playing in Dallas or Albuquerque, Texas and Texas Tech could wind up anywhere from Pittsburgh to Greenville, S.C., to Sacramento, Calif.

"Will this format keep everyone close to home? No, absolutely not," tournament director Bill Hancock said. "Will it keep many more close? Yes, we believe it will. There will be people who aren't happy with where they are assigned. They'll have to ask themselves whether they'd rather be boxing up the uniforms or traveling to go off and play somewhere."

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