— More than 20 years have evaporated since semi-famous party band Happy Mondays put down their glow sticks long enough to release their platinum-selling album, Pills ‘N’ Thrills & Bellyaches, 10 songs powered in equal parts by industrial England and recreational drugs. Although the “Pills” portion is all Manchester, the “Thrills and Bellyaches” are pure March Madness.
For every team pumped to see their name in 10-point font on a tournament bracket, there are just as many with complaints about which region they’re in or what number is in parentheses beside their name. The grumbling is typically done on the players’ behalf, from fan bases, alumni or anyone with a Windsor knot and a live mic. Sometimes it’s about the seeding. The matchups. Or how many miles they have to travel to their first two games.
On that last one, though, they have a point.
Nate Silver, the oversized brain behind baseball’s PECOTA system, wrote on his New York Times blog, “The team playing closer to home has won 59% of games since 2003.” He then gives a graph-tastic explanation for why teams whose games are closer to campus than their opponents get the neutral site equivalent of home-court advantage.
I’m not as comfortable with a calculator as Silver is, but I did look at where the top-four seeds have played their first- and second-round games since 2000 and, just like any realtor worth their Technicolor blazer will tell you, sometimes success is about location, location, location.
This year’s winners of the geographic lottery are Notre Dame and Purdue, who both open their tournament in Chicago. Ohio State will be in Cleveland, Florida starts in Tampa and Duke and North Carolina both play in Charlotte, where the stands will be as blue as Cookie Monster’s descending colon.
None of those five teams will travel more than 130 miles, but that kind of thing happens. Syracuse started in Buffalo last year. Oklahoma has drawn Oklahoma City and, in 2002, Pitt had to travel all of two miles to the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh. For some schools, though, that kind of thing happens all the dang time.
Here’s where I overclocked my cerebrum and did my best “Beautiful Mind” impression. Since the 2000 tournament, 60 different schools have taken turns as the top four seeds. Seventeen of them have been seeded 1, 2, 3 or 4 at least five times and those are the ones we’re going to pay attention to.
Since 2000, Duke has snagged a top-4 seed a ridiculous 11 times. Even more ridiculous is that they’ve only traveled an average of 286 miles to their opening-round games and have played in North Carolina 63 percent of the time. If you take away a trip to Salt Lake City in 2003 — when the Tarheel State didn’t have a tourney site — their travel average drops to 135 miles.
Kansas also has been lucky. They’ve had 11 top-4 seeds also, taking their first tournament tipoff an average of 329 miles from home. This year, they’ll be in Tulsa, less than 200 miles from Lawrence.
But the lowest travel average belongs to UNC. Since 2000, the Heels have averaged 214 miles — playing 71 percent of their first-round games in their home state — meaning they spend less time shoving their oversized shoes through airport X-ray machines than anyone else.
The two other North Carolina schools who had top-4 seeds — Wake Forest and N.C. State —traveled an average of 457 miles from home. If I owned a pipe, here’s where I would place it in my mouth and quietly smoke while you draw your own conclusion.
The Selection Committee isn’t entirely ACC-friendly, though. Maryland has spent more time on the move than Carmen San Diego, averaging 1,139 miles in the air, including quadruple-digit trips to Boise, Denver and Spokane. The one time they logged less than 280 miles was in 2002, when they started 8.8 miles away ... and won the title. This year, they’re spending the postseason on their sofas, but if they weren’t, they’d probably be in Tucson.
Since 2000, the eventual national champion has only traveled an average of 191 miles to their opening-round games. Maryland’s commute was the shortest. Florida had the longest, when their 2007 tournament opened in New Orleans. None of the past 11 net-cutters started more than 470 miles from their campus, which might mean that Kentucky (going 707 miles to Tampa), Louisville (1,036, Denver) and Wisconsin (1,391, Tucson) won’t be getting 2011 commemorative t-shirts.
This year four schools do start the tournament in their home state: Duke, Florida, Ohio State and, of course, UNC. Four of the past 11 champions played the first rounds within their own state lines, including Florida (2006), Duke (2001) and UNC (2009, 2005).
Sorry, Buckeyes. The last time Ohio State opened in Ohio (Dayton, 2006), they were bounced in the second round.
So, at least since 2000, where you start seems to affect where you finish although, as Nate Silver asks and answers, “Doesn’t the seeding committee tend to respect the geographic integrity of higher seeds more so than lower ones? These numbers could be a function in differences in team quality rather than geography.”
They could. Or they could point out that Duke and North Carolina seem to end up with an inordinate amount of hand-breaded “neutral-site” home cooking when compared with other top seeded teams. Based on their travel history alone, you might want to ink their names a couple of extra times on your bracket.
If one of those schools is scissoring the nets on April 4, some will be thrilled, some will be bellyaching but, for the players, it will be one very Happy Monday.