Pity the poor Cornell fans.
No, not because their beloved Big Red drew Big 12 champ Missouri in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Because Cornell wound up in Boise, Idaho, a place that's as tough to get to from upstate New York as it is costly. Think "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," minus John Candy and the oompa band.
The dismal economy wasn't lost on the NCAA tournament selection committee, which was even more mindful than usual of keeping teams as close to home as possible. But when three conferences have seven teams in the tournament, another two are sending six and there are rules limiting who can play each other when, some teams are going to wind up far from home.
"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."
In 2001, after Maryland, Georgetown and George Mason _ schools separated by about 30 miles _ all wound up in the same West regional bracket in Boise, Idaho, the NCAA went to a "pod" system to reduce the distance teams must travel and the amount of classes they miss. Instead of being locked into regional groupings, four teams are 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.
But the NCAA still has that rule that teams from the same conference can't meet until 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 Cornell, Florida State, Xavier, Marquette and Wisconsin were sent to Boise.
"Somebody has to go West, and some West team has to go East," Xavier coach Sean Miller said. "I'm just happy we're going somewhere."
Then there's the Philadelphia site. It's a cross-country flight for UCLA while potential second-round opponent Villanova can practically walk to the Wachovia Center.
"It's going to be tough when you look at getting a ticket at the last minute going to Philadelphia," Bruins coach Ben Howland said.
At least they're not picking 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.
"Frankly, when you get into the NCAA tournament, the NCAA does provide a reasonable amount of reimbursement for travel expenses, so that's not a huge concern," Villanova athletic director Vince Nicastro said.
Fans, however, are on their own.
The cheapest available flight Sunday night from Ithaca, N.Y., 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.
"Sometimes you travel a little further than you'd like," said Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, whose Seminoles don't have an easy trip, either.
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.
"It's an attractive destination. It's kind of a cold-weather month. It's March Madness. You take all those ingredients, and I think it's a very attractive destination," Temple athletic director Pat Bradshaw said. "We still have details to work out, but it's affordable for the great Temple fans who want to go."
Cleveland State coach Gary Waters didn't waste any time lobbying fans to join them, reminding students that Miami is a fine place to spend spring break. The Vikings were sent there for a first-round game against Wake Forest.
And really, when it comes to the NCAA tournament, alums and other supporters do tend to put the "fan" in "fanatic."
If there's a way to get there, they'll do 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 and Pat Eaton-Robb contributed to this report.
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