- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Cheese? Check. Parkas? Check. Cards for Euchre? Check. If ever a car pool were in order, now is the time for Marquette and Wisconsin fans.

With three conferences getting seven teams in the NCAA tournament, another two sending six and rules about who can play each other when and where, there was just no way to keep everyone close to home. And don’t think the NCAA selection committee didn’t try.

“Somebody has to go West, and some West team has to go East,” said Xavier coach Sean Miller, whose Muskateers are joining Wisconsin, Marquette, Florida State and Cornell out in Boise, Idaho, a place you really can’t get to from here _ not without a connecting flight or two, anyway.

“I’m just happy we’re going somewhere.”

Ever since Maryland, Georgetown and George Mason _ Washington, D.C.-area schools separated by about 30 miles _ wound up in the same regional bracket in Boise in 2001, the NCAA has done its best to keep teams as close to home as possible. Instead of locking schools into regional groupings, four teams are now put into a “pod,” and two pods are placed at each first-round site. The teams go back to their assigned regionals the second weekend of the tournament.

The goal is to limit the travel for schools and their fans, not to mention cut down on the number of classes players miss. And in many cases, it works. North Carolina is playing in Greensboro, N.C., the first weekend, about as close to home as it gets without being in its own gym. Villanova can practically walk to its first-round game at the Wachovia Center.

But the NCAA still has that rule prohibiting teams from the same conference from meeting before the regional final and another preventing a team from playing on its home court, which makes for some interesting mixing and matching. That’s how Arizona, Arizona State and Utah all wound up in Miami for the first round, while UCLA is flying clear across the country to Philadelphia.

“We are very sensitive every year, but particularly this year. We are well aware that millions of Americans … have significant problems related to the economy,” Mike Slive, chairman of the selection committee, said Sunday night. “At the same time, we have an obligation to have a bracket that works. A lot of teams are close to home, but some of the teams had to travel.”

Fortunately for the schools, they don’t have to pick up the tab.

The NCAA pays the expenses for 75 people from each school, said Greg Shaheen, vice president for men’s basketball. That group usually includes the players, coaches, trainers, band and cheerleaders. The NCAA covers the lowest-available commercial airfare, though many schools will travel by bus when possible, Shaheen said.

If a school can’t get to its site on time flying commercial, Shaheen said the NCAA will pay for a charter.

Fans, however, are on their own. And it’s going to be a tougher trip for some than others.

The cheapest available flight Sunday night from Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell’s home, to Boise, where games are Friday and Sunday, was $774 and entailed a 16 1/2-hour trip with connections in Detroit, Cincinnati and Salt Lake City. The return flight only has two connections, in Seattle and Newark, but it doesn’t arrive until 9:30 a.m.

On Tuesday.

“We do realize the economy is being challenged right now. So it would not surprise me if there are some people who would like to make the trip to Greensboro to support our men’s basketball team decide not to do so,” Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi said after the Golden Gophers were assigned to Greensboro, N.C., a 19-hour drive from Minneapolis.

“We certainly couldn’t blame them for that.”

No surprise, then, that the Temple fans cheered when the Boise pods were filled and the Owls weren’t in either. Not only were they spared a cross-country odyssey, they wound up in sunny Miami, where Temple plays Arizona State in the first round.

Cleveland State coach Gary Waters surely endeared himself to parents everywhere when he reminded students that Miami is a fine place to spend spring break. In the tournament for the first time in 23 years, the Vikings have a first-round date in South Florida with Wake Forest.

“I’m hoping we get some people there,” Waters said. “These kids better understand: Go enjoy your spring trip in Miami.”

When it comes to March Madness, some fans don’t need any encouraging. No matter the distance, no matter the dismal economy, if there’s a way to get there, they’ll find it.

“It doesn’t really matter where we could have went, our fans follow us everywhere,” said Robert Dozier of Memphis, which could wind up in Phoenix for the regional finals after drawing nearby Kansas City, Mo., for the first two rounds. “I’m pretty sure the fan thing won’t be a problem.”


AP Sports Writers Doug Alden, Andrew Bagnato, Gregg Bell, Dan Gelston, Will Graves, Steve Herman, Joe Kay, John Kekis, Jon Krawczynski, Larry Lage, Doug Tucker, Teresa Walker, and Associated Press Writers Murray Evans, Dave Kolpack and Pat Eaton-Robb contributed to this report.

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