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SAN DIEGO — Only nine of the 68 best college basketball teams in the nation are from west of the Kansas border this year, according to the NCAA Tournament men's selection committee.

The other 59 teams in the tournament — 87% — come from the Central and Eastern time zones, leaving a big void out West, where the basketball teams just aren't as bountiful or as good, depending on the viewpoint.

At least one strange side effect of this imbalance has developed this week as a result:

A bunch of Deep South and red-state teams have been forced to fly into Southern California to fill the bracket at Viejas Arena, a first-and second-round site that was determined years in advance. This happened despite committee guidelines instituted in 2002 to keep teams closer to home.

"If anybody's equipped to do it, we can do it," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said Thursday, putting a positive spin on his team's many long travels.

His team is seeded fifth in the East Region, of all places, and yet was required to come all the way out here to play Murray State of Kentucky on Friday in the first round.

Some might see this as fallout from an alleged East Coast bias, especially after the selection committee snubbed the Southern California Trojans and Saint Mary's College of California, both of which finished second in their leagues. After all, seven members of the 10-member committee are from the Central and Eastern time zones.

This year, the amount of teams from those time zones (59) is tied for the most ever from that part of the country, tied with last year, according to data from STATS. The only time there were fewer than nine teams from the Mountain, Pacific and Hawaii time zones was in 1986, when there were seven, according to STATS.

But the lopsided map also has an innocent explanation: Less than 20% of all Division I teams are from west of the Central time zone to begin with, and teams from that side of the country have never earned more than 15 NCAA Tournament berths in one year anyway, which happened in 2013.

The basketball teams out West this year also weren't as good, according to several metrics and the committee. Of the nine tournament teams from out West, the committee seeded only three higher than an 11-seed: Nevada, a 7 seed, and Arizona and Gonzaga, both 4 seeds.

"Teams will remain in or as close to their areas of natural interest as possible," according to NCAA tournament seeding guidelines that were designed to reduce team travel and increase local fan interest.

But if there aren't enough good teams from out West, this is what happens: The first-round games in San Diego are filled with teams from the East and Midwest Regions of the bracket: Clemson, Charleston, Auburn, West Virginia, Marshall of West Virginia, Murray State (Ky.) and Wichita State. New Mexico State is the lone team in San Diego from west of Kansas.

Tickets were still available Thursday at Viejas Arena, which seats about 11,000 for tournament games. It's not clear how many fans each school will bring even if the schools have sold all of their allotments.

Some still won't be fazed by the travel distance, especially the Buchanan family from Mississippi. Brothers Shunn and Leroy "Shaq" Buchanan play for New Mexico State and Murray State, respectively, in separate games in San Diego.

"I have a big group of family coming out," Shunn Buchanan told USA TODAY. "They're excited. I'm just happy for my mom."

The committee has tried to keep teams closer to home by matching certain "pods" of four-team mini-brackets with one of eight first- and second-round sites that were determined several years ago. The best teams in those pods are seeded 1, 2, 3 or 4 and receive geographic priority as much as possible.

"If you look at the overall seed list, of all the teams on the top 12 lines (the 1, 2 and 3 seeds), none are Mountain (time) or Western teams," NCAA media coordinator David Worlock said in an e-mail. "That means all of the sites were taken except for the two Western sites (Boise and San Diego)."

Arizona and Gonzaga went to Boise for first-round games, along with Kentucky, Buffalo, Ohio State and two teams from North Carolina.

Asked why Arizona, a four-seed in the South Region, was not sent to San Diego instead of Wichita State or Auburn, also both 4 seeds, Worlock said the committee looks at other factors besides geography.

"When there is minimal relative distance between sites, the committee may exercise discretion when assigning teams to a site," Worlock said. "The reasons could relate to ease and flexibility of travel options, competitive balance and natural geographic region."

Besides Arizona, UCLA and Arizona State were the only other tournament teams from the Pac-12, the best league in the West. Both were relegated to preliminary play-in games this week in Dayton, Ohio.

And then they both lost to teams from New York.

In San Diego, the two teams that advance from here to the Sweet 16 will proceed to either Omaha or Boston.

Their fans might want to pick up some fish tacos from the beach before they leave. It's cold out there, and it's a long trip.

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March 16, 2018


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