Top seeds may play in de facto road games

DeMarcus Cousins and No. 1-seeded Kentucky may face Cornell in Syracuse -- less than 60 miles from the Big Red's campus. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The art and science of producing a 65-team NCAA tournament field is complicated on a number of levels.

First and foremost, there are the difficulties of selecting the right teams and seeding them in the right order. This year’s bubble was flimsy enough that there’s no point crying about teams left out, but there were plenty of seeding decisions that made little sense. No need to run over that squirrel again here, though.

On the secondary level is the Rubik’s Cube job of geographic placement. It’s a tricky process that is supposed to award the best teams with the most preferential site locations, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Almost every year some high seed is complaining about being put in a virtual road-game setting against an underdog.

This year, we could have several of those situations.

We could have Duke, top seed in the South Region, dealing with a regional semifinal in Houston against fifth-seeded Texas A&M and a regional final against Baylor. It’s roughly 97 miles from College Station and 186 miles from Waco to Houston, and both schools have a significant alumni base in that city. (Maybe that’s the payback for giving Duke a region that’s only slightly more difficult than the Missouri Valley Conference.)

We could have No. 1 East Region seed Kentucky playing Cornell in Syracuse, if both win second-round games this weekend. Cornell’s Ithaca campus is 55 miles from Syracuse. (Then again: given the way Kentucky fans travel, and given the Big Red’s average home attendance of 3,658, don’t look for that to be a potential major issue for the Wildcats.)

And, of particular interest here in Oklahoma City, there is the Brigham Young situation.

The Cougars are an upset of Kansas State away from a West Region Sweet Sixteen game in Salt Lake City. Provo is 44 miles from the Utah state capital, and many of the BYU fans already live there – a potentially stupendous home advantage for a No. 7 seed. If you’re sixth-seeded Xavier or No. 3 seed Pittsburgh, one of whom will advance to Salt Lake City, you would not be happy about seeing BYU there. And neither would No. 1 seed Syracuse.

BYU is an annual location headache for the selection committee, because the Mormon school will not play on Sundays for religious reasons. That automatically eliminates 50 percent of the sites.

It is the Cougars’ great good fortune that Salt Lake City is a Thursday-Saturday site.

“You don’t want to look too far ahead, but I think anything that can maybe motivate you a little bit more is a good thing,” BYU coach Dave Rose said Friday. “I think our players would really look forward to that opportunity. And so we’ll just kind of treat it like something that’s out there that’s good for our team if we can accomplish another goal.”

You don’t have to look any farther back than last year to find evidence of how significant a motivating factor de facto home games can be. Michigan State elevated its play to another level to beat overall No. 1 seed Louisville in the regional final and advance to the Final Four in Detroit. And once there, the Spartans rode a huge home-state advantage to upset Connecticut before getting drilled by North Carolina in the national championship game.

So you can understand why BYU players’ eyes lit up when the bracket came out last Sunday and showed them two games away from Salt Lake City.

“We have a very tough game on Saturday with Kansas State,” scoring machine Jimmer Fredette said. “If we were to win that game, it would be great for us to be able to go back to Salt Lake and play in front of kind of a home crowd, basically. That would be a great thing for our program, for our fans and everything.

“But, obviously we can’t look ahead. We’ve got a huge game coming up. They’re a very, very talented team. We have to be ready to go.”

Fredette is right, of course. There is a very difficult matchup to survive first. But from Salt Lake to Houston and perhaps even to Syracuse, the NCAA selection committee has set itself up for a lot of potential whining next week from higher seeded teams playing de facto road games.