Travel as a Handicapping Factor in the Tourney
T.O. Whenham of Doc's Sports Predictions
Home court advantage is probably more significant in college basketball than it is in any other sport. Teams are aided significantly by the familiarity of their own gym, the avoidance of travel and the boisterous support of rowdy fans. Good teams are almost unbeatable at home, and questionable teams are much more competitive when they are eating home cooking. Home court advantage often makes handicapping during the regular season relatively simple.
Handicapping the tournament is tough, and one reason is that home court advantage isn't a factor. Every game is played on a neutral court, so no team has an undue advantage. That's the theory, anyway. In practice, there are several situations in which a team is playing close enough to home that they might as well be playing in their own gym. On the other hand, some teams have to travel so far that they could suffer. Here's a look at teams in the first and second round for which the location of their games has to be a significant handicapping factor:
Teams with short trips
North Carolina - The Tar Heels have to travel just 75 miles from Chapel Hill to their first and second round match-ups in Winston-Salem. Though that town is the home of Wake Forest and may not be enthusiastically behind the Heels, the faithful in baby blue will absolutely swarm the city and fill the building. They play Eastern Kentucky in the first round and either Marquette or Michigan State in the second round, so their opponents won't have nearly as much support as North Carolina. The Tar Heels likely don't need the aid of this advantage, but it obviously won't hurt.
Louisville - The Cardinals also have to travel just 75 miles down the road. They will also be playing in the arena that was the home of coach Pitino for the eight years he was at Kentucky. To compound the advantage, the Cards play Stanford in the first round. Not only does Stanford not really belong, but they have to travel clear across the country. In the second round they play Texas A&M. The Aggies are already complaining about the scheduling, so Louisville has a psychological edge.
Wisconsin - The Badgers will be on the bus for less than two hours before they arrive in Chicago for their first two games. That's close enough that they will be able to sleep in their own beds between games. None of the teams that they could face in those games are from anywhere even remotely close to Chicago, so Wisconsin has an edge.
UCLA - It's lucky that the Bruins only have to travel 375 miles to the state capital of Sacramento, because the team needs all the help it can get. After all, they are only unquestionably one of the top five teams in the tournament, and they stand a very solid chance of winning it all.
Teams with a long trip ahead
Winthrop - The Eagles are a popular Cinderella pick, but they won't be able to win if the can't handle a long trip They have to travel 2,600 miles from their home outside of Charlotte, North Carolina to Spokane, Washington. The furthest west the team has been this year is Wisconsin, so this could be an adjustment. The one thing the team has going for them is that nowhere is close to Spokane, so Notre Dame and Miami (Ohio) will be dealing with some jetlag as well.
George Washington - You can't get two cities that are much further apart in the U.S. than Washington D.C. and Sacramento. There is 2,700 miles of American goodness between the two cities. The flight won't be unfamiliar for the Colonials, though - they traveled to Anaheim in December to play USC. They didn't win or cover that game, so maybe California is cursed for them
Vanderbilt - George Washington's opponent will have to travel almost as far for the game - it's 2,300 miles from Nashville to Sacramento. The ridiculous travel for both teams means that neither team will have a significant edge on that front, and neither is likely to have a large fan contingent. Though Vanderbilt didn't go further west than Houston this year, they are familiar with crazy travel - they traveled almost 1,800 miles to play in Puerto Rico.
Oral Roberts - Yet another team that is nowhere close to Sacramento. The Golden Eagles will travel more than 1,700 miles to play No. 3 seed Washington State. Oral Roberts was looked at as a possibility to become the first to upset a top seed in the first round last year when they played Memphis, and they impressed everyone by beating Kansas this year, but this travel could be a big challenge. The Golden Eagles have racked up some serious frequent flier miles so far this year, with games against Loyola Marymount and Brigham Young falling far away from Oklahoma.
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