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The NCAA Tournament’s Dirty Little Secret: So Much For East Coast Bias

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UCLA has historically been given a consistent break in their path to the Final Four of their NCAA Tournament. What break am I talking about? Well, veteran basketball fans can tell you that the past two seasons the Bruins have earned a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s Western Regional (in Oakland in 2006 and San Jose in 2007). So, the Bruins did not have to leave their home state in either case, even though both times they played a higher-seeded team in the Regional Final, Memphis in 2006 and Kansas in 2007, both of whom had to travel at least 1500 miles. But why are they given this break?

Back when the NCAA Tournament Regionals actually included teams from the named region (i.e., the West Region included teams only from the West, etc.) and only conference champions qualified, UCLA was essentially given a free pass to the Final Four. I'm not saying that the UCLA teams weren't good, because they obviously were because they DID have to beat other teams from other regions to win the championship, but for YEARS they rarely were in a battle to get the Final Four, much less the tournament. I'm just saying that winning a one-and-done tournament becomes much easier if you have to win only two games against stiff competition when everyone else has to win as many as four. Plus teams like Duke, North Carolina (UNC), and North Carolina State were competing for one spot in the tournament, and Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State were competing for another. This was just to get into the tournament, not the Final Four. Meanwhile, UCLA's competition was teams like Washington, Oregon, and Stanford.

Okay, so that was more than 25 years ago, what about today? Nowadays, UCLA is favored because they are in the West by the NCAA's policy of putting teams as close to home as possible, especially 1 and 2 seeds, for the Regionals. Let’s look at 2008 as an example. Common sense says that with UNC, Tennessee, and Duke each competing for top seeds, they can't ALL get a 1 or a 2 in Charlotte, which is easily the closest regional for all three. Furthermore, Duke and UNC can't even be in the same regional because they're in the same conference, so one of Duke/UNC must be shipped out of Charlotte, and the best case is that Tennessee and either Duke or UNC will get to play in Charlotte. On the other hand, who is competing for a 1 or a 2 seed in the West? Just UCLA! Ergo, UCLA will be the 1 or the 2 in the West, and the other of the top two seeds will be someone who was shipped out of their own geographic regional!

The reality is that the NCAA is going to keep trying to keep 1 seeds as close to home as possible, with 2 seeds getting the same treatment but secondary to 1 seeds (as they should).

The problem with this is that as long as one regional is played West of the Rockies and there is only one major conference west of the Rockies, the champion of that conference is consistently going to get to play in the Western Regional as the 1 or 2 (or probably even 3) seed. So expect whoever wins the Pac-10 (and is the conference's highest-seeded team in the NCAA Tournament) to consistently play closer to home in the NCAA Regional Final than their opponent, even if that opponent is the higher-seeded team.

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About Aaron Markowitz