As conference tournaments are underway, Selection Sunday feels ever so close. It is a day that college basketball fans circle on their calendars. This when they learn where their team is seeded and what their potential path to a Final Four entails. Pundits will gripe about who is overseeded and underseeded, which bubble teams were snubbed, and what region is the most difficult.
However, perhaps college basketball fans should worry more about what location their team was assigned to as opposed to what they were seeded. Are there advantages to playing closer to home? What disadvantages do teams that travel far have to overcome?
We will examine the “pod system” that the NCAA Tournament committee uses to place the top teams. In addition, we will look at how to use team travel distance to inform your early-round March Madness wagers.
The Pod System
Prior to 2002, the NCAA Tournament committee used an S-curve model in order to assign teams to the bracket. Thus, teams seeded Nos. 1-4 were assigned their destinations. Then, the No. 5 overall seed was placed with the No. 4 overall seed and so on. However, the NCAA determined it was more beneficial to teams and their fans for travel purposes to reward the top teams and keep them geographically closer to home.
Thus, in 2002 the pod system was created. The top-16 teams (Nos. 1-4 seeds in each region) are now “protected,” meaning they receive preferential geographic treatment when applicable. For the first two rounds, games can be played in locations that do not geographically align with their overall region. For example, in 2019 the West regional had a pod that played its first two rounds in Hartford, CT.
Advantages of Playing Closer to Home
When wagering on the early rounds of the NCAA tournament, many bettors will look at the locations of games and factor that into their analysis. Teams that are placed closer to home have less travel and subsequent fatigue to deal with. In addition, those teams are more likely to have their fan base come out in droves to support them.
There are many instances recently where a higher-seeded team benefitted from being placed closer to home. In 2018, No. 3 seed Texas Tech waltzed through the first two rounds after playing games in Dallas. That same year, No. 1 seed Kansas enjoyed a nice path through the Midwest regional en route to the Final Four. They played their first two rounds in Wichita and were a short drive away in the regional finals in Omaha.
One of the most fascinating cases was in 2009 when Villanova was given their first two games in Philadelphia. The games were played at the Wachovia Center (now the Wells Fargo Center) where they played four home games earlier in the season.
However, favoring certain teams purely based on geography is not always a foolproof system. In 2018, UNC lost its second-round game to Texas A&M in Charlotte. That same year, Michigan State lost its second-round matchup in Detroit to Syracuse. Florida State lost in the second round in 2017 in Orlando to Xavier.
In 2014, Daniel Clay, Aniseh Bro, and Nathan Clay produced a study that looked at how travel affected NCAA Tournament games. They found that teams that traveled more than 150 miles saw their odds of winning reduced by 33.6% compared to teams who stayed closer to home.
Disadvantages of Traveling Long Distances
There is no secret that teams that have to travel long distances are more susceptible to fatigue. In the most egregious cases, some teams may have to travel across multiple time zones to get to their destination.
The study by Clay, Bro, and Clay found that teams from the West who traveled across two or more time zones to the East saw their winning percentages drop below 38%. Many East Coast tournament games start early in the afternoon. Thus, athletes from West Coast schools might not adjust easily to an earlier start time.
There is a general rule in sports that oddsmakers build in roughly three points in favor of the home team to their lines. Though early-round NCAA tournament games are never true home games for anyone, it is more challenging for a team from a remote location to win a game on a “neutral court” where one team may have 80% of the fans in the stands.
Rest vs. Rust
Bettors often overlook the amount of travel a team endured through their conference tournaments. Most of the larger conferences’ tournament games are played at one location. However, some of the smaller conferences play their tournament games at the higher-seeded team’s arena. A team that wins four games to earn an automatic bid might have played those games in four different locations.
The trade-off for teams from smaller conferences that travel more is that their tournaments typically end much earlier than the bigger conferences. The Mountain West and Ohio Valley conferences crown their champions 12 days before the first NCAA tournament game is played. However, the Ivy League, A-10, SEC, Sun Belt, AAC, and Big Ten do not play their championships until Selection Sunday. Thus, the teams that participate in these conference championships will only have three or four days of rest before their first NCAA tournament game.
Bettors are always going to be on opposite sides of the “rest versus rust” argument. No matter which stance you think is the correct one, you should always do your research into how much a team has traveled leading up to the tournament. In many cases, one is likely to find lines that have value based on inflation or a lack thereof due to geography and travel.