March 10, 2002
When the NCAA tournament bracket is released Sunday, it will have the familiar interlocking lines ready for the names of teams advancing toward the Final Four.
The big difference will be geography.
Chicago could be part of the West, Sacramento part of the Midwest.
A first- and second-round site could have two No. 1 seeds playing there, while some venues may be without a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. Some lower-seeded teams might even be staying close to home.
Welcome to the 2002 NCAA tournament, where change and flexibility are the rule, not the exception.
"The teams on the first line will stay in their region and then we'll put them in the actual pods," tournament selection committee chairman Lee Fowler said this week. "If there is any way we can keep them closer to home, we'll do that, too."
The selection committee can achieve that goal because of a rule change this summer intended to limit travel in the early rounds.
In the past, eight teams have been placed into each of the eight subregionals. This year, the committee will place four teams into each "pod" and place two pods at each site. The teams then move on the next weekend to their assigned regionals.
It is the second major change to the tournament in two seasons. Last year, the committee added a 65th team and set up a Tuesday game between the final two teams qualifying for the tournament. The winner advances to a first-round matchup against a No. 1 seed.
This year, the change is a little more confusing.
With the added flexibility, the committee could place No. 1 seeds from two regions in a site such as Chicago, while a site such as Albuquerque may be left without a top seed.
Fowler believes the changes will make the tournament more affordable and attractive to fans.
"That could happen, where there's not a No. 1 or No. 2 seed at a site," Fowler said. "But the good thing under the new system is that they would have more teams with local interest or conference interest playing at their site."
The change was made after last season when three teams from the Washington, D.C., area - Georgetown, Maryland and George Mason - and Hampton, which is from southern Virginia, all were sent to Boise, Idaho for the first and second rounds.
There will be other changes, too.
Bob Knight likely will return to the tournament, this time in a black sweater with Texas Tech. North Carolina likely will not after going 8-19 in the regular season to end the record string of 27 consecutive appearances, a run that began in 1975. The second-longest streak is also current, Arizona's 17 straight that started in 1985.
Also missing will be Nolan Richardson, who won the 1994 national championship with Arkansas. His contract was bought out last week and his Razorbacks ended with a 14-15 record and won't make the tournament either.
But as much as things change, some things remain the same - such as the controversy over at-large selections.
After opening the season 13-0 and cracking the AP's Top 25 for the first time in 53 years, Butler finished 25-5 after losing in the opening round of the Horizon League tournament - putting the Bulldogs among those teams waiting for their fate on Sunday.
Ball State, which opened the season by beating UCLA and Kansas on consecutive nights at the Maui Invitational, entered the Mid-American Conference tournament with a 19-10 record. Did the Cardinals have to win the automatic bid to get in or can the MAC get two teams in the field?
"I think any quality wins are important, whenever they come," said Fowler, the athletic director at North Carolina State. "Good wins are good wins, whether you get them early or get them late."
Even old standards, such as 20 wins, might not be enough to warrant a bid, in Fowler's opinion.
"I've been on this committee for four years and a lot of teams with 20 wins don't get in," Fowler said. "I'd definitely say that just because you have 20 wins, you're not necessarily going to get in."
But the biggest controversy could come from the NCAA's new rule and keeping teams closer to home.
Pittsburgh, for instance, is a first- and second-round site. The Panthers are ranked No. 7 this week and could end up with a No. 3 seed and still play in Pittsburgh.
Other teams, such as Loyola (Illinois), which won the Horizon League tournament this week, could wind up in a similar situation since Chicago is a first-round site.
Fowler said the committee will try to avoid such anomalies as placing a team such as Loyola, likely to be among the bottom seeds, virtually at home.
The intention was to keep teams near home, not at home. But Fowler believes the changes will work properly and that fans will see that Sunday night.
"We, hopefully, will not allow that to happen, where you have a homecourt for a lower-seeded team," Fowler said. "But we think this will not only help the top four teams but we think it will help all the way through the brackets."
By MICHAEL MAROT
AP Sports Writer