One of the truly great things about the NCAA Tournament is the pod system it uses to get 48 games played in just four days. Sending eight teams to each of eight sites and staging six games there is a triumph of logisitics, one of the vanishingly rare things the NCAA gets mostly right — even if it has increasingly sanitized the atmospheres of those regional "pods" with unified court layouts and boring black-and-blue branding.
Not only does it reward the fan who will schlep out to each regional site with four or six games between good teams, it exposes the regional fan to teams well off her radar. She might catch Michigan State in Spokane, or Louisville in Orlando, or Duke in Milwaukee1.
Which cities got the best teams and matchups this year? I'm glad you asked, convenient rhetorical conceit!
No. 1: St. Louis
Teams: No. 1 Wichita State, No. 2 Kansas, No. 7 New Mexico, No. 8 Kentucky, No. 9 Kansas State, No. 10 Stanford, No. 15 Eastern Kentucky, No. 16 Cal Poly/Texas Southern
Best Team: Wichita State
Best Player: Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
Best Player You Don't Know Yet: Kendall Williams, New Mexico
Best Round of 64 Matchup: Kentucky vs. Kansas State
Best Potential Round of 32 Matchup: Wichita State vs. Kentucky
If seeds hold, St. Louis will have by far the best Saturday of the first weekend, probably the best day of the first weekend, and maybe the best single day of basketball of the entire NCAA Tournament. Both Kentucky and New Mexico are dramatically underseeded, and they match up well with Wichita State and Kansas, plus there might be 10 future NBA players on the court in those two games — by a conservative estimate.
The problem is that it's not going to be a particularly interesting Thursday, in all likelihood. Wichita State would maul Cal Poly, and would handle Texas Southern's Aaric Murray. Kentucky is a terrible matchup for Kansas State. Eastern Kentucky's tallest player is 6'8", which means the court will be the Andrew Wiggins Bounce House. And not only is New Mexico underseeded, it is basically a better version of Stanford, which bodes poorly for an interesting game.
Still, there will be Wichita State fans, Kansas fans, and Kansas State fans at the same pod — and they will be utterly drowned out by the Kentucky fans in attendance. That will be great.
No. 2: San Diego
Teams: No. 1 Arizona, No. 4 UCLA, No. 5 VCU, No. 8 Gonzaga, No. 9 Oklahoma State, No. 12 Stephen F. Austin, No. 13 Tulsa, No. 16 Weber State
Best Team: Arizona
Best Player: Aaron Gordon, Arizona
Best Player You Haven't Heard Of: Jacob Parker, Stephen F. Austin
Best Round of 64 Matchup: Gonzaga vs. Oklahoma State
Best Potential Round of 32 Matchup: Arizona vs. Oklahoma State
Friday could be relatively boring in San Diego. Arizona should cruise, UCLA has a lot more talent than Tulsa, VCU could overwhelm Stephen F. Austin with its press, and there's significant no-show potential with both Gonzaga and Oklahoma State.
But it could also be great: Weber State is a great three-point shooting team, which could trouble Arizona on a cold day, Tulsa's about one year from being really good, Stephen F. Austin plays Northwestern State's speed-based attack all the time in the Southland, and both Gonzaga and Oklahoma State have a lot of talent.
And Sunday could be really fun. Oklahoma State's talent against Arizona? Gonzaga trying to reuse the script that Wichita State followed last year? A UCLA-VCU game that would literally pit Slow-Mo (UCLA's Kyle Anderson) against HAVOC? Sign me up.
No. 3: Orlando
Teams: No. 1 Florida, No. 4 Louisville, No. 5 Saint Louis, No. 8 Colorado, No. 9 Pittsburgh, No. 12 Xavier/N.C. State, No. 13 Manhattan, No. 16 Albany/Mount St. Mary's
Best Team: Florida and/or Louisville
Best Player: Russ Smith, Louisville
Best Player You Don't Know Yet: George Beamon, Manhattan
Best Round of 64 Matchup: Louisville vs. Manhattan
Best Potential Round of 32 Matchup: Louisville vs. Saint Louis
The national champion may well come out of Orlando. Heck, the two teams in the NCAA Tournament final might come out of Orlando.
Florida was always a lock to head to Orlando — the Gators are usually bound for whatever city in the Sunshine State hosts games, though Floridian cities don't end up with NCAA Tournament games as often as you might expect — but sending Louisville to the City Beautiful with Florida is a stroke of good luck for fans of great teams.
There's no other pod city with two better teams, and there's a sneaky good No. 5-No. 12 matchup in the offing, and Manhattan's George Beamon is a fantastic player, and Florida and Louisville are both plenty exciting on both ends of the court when they're on, and Colorado and Pittsburgh have enough talent to slay the Gators on the perfect day, and N.C. State's T.J. Warren could get hot enough to take the Wolfpack from Dayton to the Sweet Sixteen, AND Florida fans are likely to spend the entirety of the two days in close proximity to Cards, while gritting their teeth about the 2012 Elite Eight and 2013 Sugar Bowl.
Or maybe "Florida fans are" is really "I am." Whatever. It'll still be fun!
No. 4: Spokane
Teams: No. 4 Michigan State, No. 4 San Diego State, No. 5 Cincinnati, No. 5 Oklahoma, No. 12 Harvard, No. 12 New Mexico State, No. 13 Delaware, No. 13 North Dakota State
Best Team: Michigan State
Best Player: Adreian Payne, Michigan State
Best Player You Don't Know: Siyani Chambers, Harvard
Best Round of 64 Matchup: Cincinnati vs. Harvard
Best Potential Round of 32 Matchup: Michigan State vs. Cincinnati
If you want Upset City, Spokane is your town: Two No. 5 vs. No. 12 matchups, one featuring sure-to-be-trendy Harvard (in an awful matchup, but still) and the other featuring statuesque 7'5" Sim Bhullar of New Mexico State, and two game No. 13s, including one going up against the sometimes suspect offense San Diego State puts on the floor.
Michigan State, which I am legally bound to remind you is fully healthy, probably storms through its part of the pod, but the other one could go any which way. If Cincy doesn't just impose its will, drama is likely.
And Harvard should call itself Harvard State for a week. Just try to blend in, guys.
No. 5: San Antonio
Teams: No. 3 Creighton, No. 3 Iowa State, No. 6 Baylor, No. 6 North Carolina, No. 11 Nebraska, No. 11 Providence, No. 14 Louisiana, No. 14 North Carolina Central
Best Team: Iowa State
Best Player: Doug McDermott, Creighton
Best Player You Don't Know: Terran Pettaway, Nebraska
Best Round of 64 Matchup: Baylor vs. Nebraska
Best Potential Round of 32 Matchup: Creighton vs. Nebraska
Do you like offense? You will like the San Antonio pod. Creighton's the nation's best offensive team, Iowa State is among the nation's most versatile offensive teams, Baylor has Brady Heslip, North Carolina has a vintage Roy Williams run-and-run offense, Nebraska has a bunch of shooters and a superb coach, Providence has Bryce Cotton, the nation's most-used player, and a superb coach, and Louisiana has Elfrid Payton, a future NBA player.
North Carolina Central is probably the best team in its conference's history, and would be a really good upset pick if it weren't matched up with Iowa State, which nullifies most of its ability to defend.
No. 6: Raleigh
Teams: No. 1 Virginia, No. 3 Duke, No. 6 UMass, No. 8 Memphis, No. 9 George Washington, No. 11 Iowa or Tennessee, No. 14 Mercer, No. 16 Coastal Carolina
Best Player: Jabari Parker, Duke
Best Player You Haven't Heard Of: Chaz Williams, UMass
Best Round of 64 Matchup: UMass vs. Iowa or Tennessee
Best Potential Round of 32 Matchup: Duke vs. Tennessee
Virginia got a gift of a draw: Coastal Carolina is bad and Memphis and George Washington both match up poorly with the grind-minded Cavs. It should be a relatively perfunctory march to the Sweet Sixteen for the 'Hoos.
But the other part of the pod is loaded.
Duke is No. 7 in KenPom. Tennessee is No. 13. Iowa's No. 27. UMass is No. 52, but spent most of its hellacious non-conference schedule — the Minutemen played five home games before beginning their A-10 slate — in the mid-20s. Mercer is No. 99, but it is well-equipped for pistols at 20 paces with Duke. There are NBA players on all of those teams but Mercer, as long as Chaz Williams and Roy Devyn Marble get at least cups of coffee, and Duke and Tennessee each start at least two. If you're a fan of Duke losing, you have a lot of teams to root for.
No. 7: Milwaukee
Teams: No. 2 Michigan, No. 2 Wisconsin, No. 7 Oregon, No. 7 Texas, No. 10 BYU, No. 10 Arizona State, No. 15 American, No. 15 Wofford
Best Team: Michigan
Best Player: Nik Stausksas, Michigan
Best Player You Haven't Heard Of: Tyler Haws, BYU
Best Round of 64 Matchup: Oregon vs. BYU
Best Potential Round of 32 Matchup: Wisconsin vs. Oregon
If Michigan had Wisconsin's No. 2 seed, and vice versa, this would have a higher ranking.
As is, the Badgers will roll American and then slow down either Oregon or BYU, while Michigan will probably shoot by its foes with little trouble. We miss out on a Michigan-Oregon/BYU shootout that would have been life-giving, and a Wisconsin-Texas matchup that would have been an interesting chess match, and we still would have gotten the Oregon-BYU and Texas-Arizona State games that promise to be entertaining and vexing to Arizona State-cum-Texas AD Steve Patterson, respectively.
And the NCAA turned down that possiblility for what, I ask? FOR. WHAT.
No. 8: Buffalo
Teams: No. 2 Villanova, No. 3 Syracuse, No. 6 Ohio State, No. 7 UConn, No. 10 Saint Joseph's, No. 11 Dayton, No. 14 Western Michigan, No. 15 Milwaukee
Best Team: Villanova
Best Player: Shabazz Napier, UConn
Best Player You Don't Know Yet: Aaron Craft, Ohio State2
Best Round of 64 Matchup: UConn vs. Saint Joseph's
Best Potential Round of 32 Matchup: Villanova vs. UConn
The best team in Buffalo is Villanova, a very good team of unspectacular parts that fit together very well — it's like Florida without the winning streak or the names you know. The second-best team in Buffalo is Syracuse, which has spent most of the last month either trying desperately to win every game it plays by exactly one point or playing basketball poorly, depending on your perspective.
The third-best team in Buffalo is either Ohio State, which has an unfortunate offense allergy, or UConn, fresh off getting waxed by Louisville twice. This feels like the pod the Selection Committee filled last, knowing that Syracuse fans would make the two-hour drive en masse. Even the low seeds, Western Michigan and Milwaukee, feel like they just filled spots where MAC TOURNAMENT CHAMPION and HORIZON LEAGUE TOURNAMENT CHAMPION IF NOT GREEN BAY got erased. I suppose you could get excited for whatever round of 32 game Villanova ends up in, but Syracuse-Ohio State is a future crime against our eyes. Philip K. Dick tried to save us.
And, also, the Buffalo pod is in Buffalo.
Just kidding! Duke will always play somewhere in North Carolina, or in a big city on the East Coast. There is no easier bet in college sports.
Okay, it's Halil Kanacevic of St. Joe's. You got me.