The Pod System: For Once, The NCAA Got Something Right | Stat Geek Idol

This is a Sweet 16 submission in our inaugural Stat Geek Idol contest. It was conceived of and written by Kevin Buikema.

Just over a decade ago, the NCAA looked over the structure of the NCAA tournament, and they were displeased. They thought to themselves, “No more should the sub-regional sites be tethered to their regional brethren! Sub-regionals should be free to choose the site most convenient to the highest seeds!”

Thus, the NCAA made the decision to assign subregional sites, or “pods”, on a case-by-case basis. Pods would be assigned sites in order of seeding, so that 1 seeds got top priority to be close to home, and on down to the newly protected 4 and 5 seeds.

As stated directly on the NCAA Selection Principles, section III, paragraph 9:

To recognize the demonstrated quality of such teams, the committee shall not place teams seeded on the first five lines at a potential “home-crowd disadvantage” in the second round.

So, then, starting in 2002, the top 5 seeds were protected by the selection committee. This wasn’t the first big change by the NCAA, by any means, but normally the big changes they made were reflected in a huge anomaly in tournament performance the following year. In 1985, they expanded the field to 64 teams, and an 8 seeded Villanova won it all. In 1988, they put a stop to teams playing at home in the tournament, and 6 seeded Kansas won it all. Even in 2011, they expanded the at-large field by four teams and created the “First Four”, and out of that First Four, 11 seeded VCU went all the way to the Final Four.

But in 2002, they created the pod system, and….1 seed Maryland won it all. Certainly not the stuff of outrage, unless the new system prevented Cinderellas…except 12 seeded Missouri went all the way to the regional finals. So what effect has this brilliant change had on the 11 years of sub-regionals since its inception? And was that a sarcastic “brilliant” or a commendatory “brilliant”? Let’s find out together.

Upset Rates Before & During The “Pod” Era

One immediately obvious concern about protecting the top 5 seeds in the regionals would be the overall reduction in lower seeds advancing to the regionals. Let’s look at the 25 years of results from neutral sites (14 before pods, 11 since), and see how the results compare:

Surprisingly, the number of 7 seeds and higher advancing to the regionals has stayed almost the same. Actually, it’s increased slightly from 20% to 21%. No, the big losers here have actually been the 6 seeds and the 4 seeds. The 6 seeds got the raw end of the “top 5 protected” deal by getting paired with protected 3 seeds, and the 4 seeds have stopped getting preferential treatment over 5 seeds. So our Cinderella low seeds are being preserved. Whew!

It should be noted, though, that prior to, well, this past Friday, neither a 1 nor a 2 seed had lost in the first round since the inception of the pods. Why now for the 15 over 2 upset? Well, one logical explanation would be the introduction of the First Four last year. The net effect of the First Four games causes each of the seeds below the final at-larges to shift down one spot. So, potentially, the 15 seeds are a bit stronger than they were a couple years ago, but that’s a different analysis for a different article.

The Pod System Has Cut Down On Travel Distance

The second potential pitfall of the pod system lies in protecting its seeds. If the top 5 seeds are to avoid any home-crowd disadvantage, then the bottom 11 seeds are probably getting shipped across the country to accommodate them, right? And if neither 4 nor 5 seeds are going to get a home-crowd disadvantage, that means that both are playing nowhere near home, right?

First, we should define what constitutes a “home-crowd advantage”. For the purposes of my information, I defined it as a game where your team travels at most 250 miles from campus, and the opponent travels at least twice as far. So, let’s take a look at the effects of the pod system on the average travel and travel advantages for each seed:

Well, how about that? Since the inception of the pod system, teams travel on average about 2200 miles fewer per year than they did before the pod system. Only the 4-5-12-13 sub-regionals actually net increased travel overall to protect both the 4 and 5 seeds. Two thumbs up to the NCAA! Come on, guys, when they’re right, they’re right.

The Frequency Of Home Field Advantage Has Changed

There are some significant differences in the home-crowd advantages offered to the high seeds, though. 1 and 2 seeds have gotten an enormous boost of sub-regionals with home-crowd advantage. This can be chalked up largely to not requiring the 1 and 2 seeds to be evenly distributed graphically, so they tend to take up all the close-to-home pods.

That leaves the leftover pods to the 3 seeds and the 4-5 pods. The 3 seeds are still getting a bit of additional advantage, but haven’t significantly improved their home-crowd advantages. The 4 and 5 seeds are pretty much on a level playing field now, which is borne out in the equal representation in the regionals since 2002.

One more oddity in this distance data is that the 6 and 7 seeds are actually in improved situations as well. Both are closer to home, and more frequently have the home-crowd advantage. So, then, why have the 6 seeds struggled so much more to advance to the regionals in the pod era, if not for geographical reasons? Part of it could be that the 6 seeds are simply playing more 3 seeds in the round of 32, since 14 seeds aren’t beating the 3 seeds as often.

The 8 seeds (along with the 15 and 16 seeds), though, really got the raw end of the deal here, as since all four 1 seeds basically get to pick the site as close to home as possible, the 8 seeds find themselves at a home-crowd disadvantage almost 4 times as often. They’re still advancing to the regionals on occasion, but they’re doing so in much more hostile environments, on the whole.

The Pod System Is An Unqualified Success

In conclusion, then, the NCAA’s decision to sever the sub-regional sites from their sister regional cities was a slam dunk for them. Lower seeds are still keeping the sub-regionals exciting, travel is reduced nearly across the board for teams and their fans, and higher seeds get rewarded for their regular season performance with crowd-preferential site advantages.