"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that made all the difference" -Robert Frost
When the NCAA decided to go to the pod system and no longer tether the opening round venues to their regional sites, it was done so to make it easier for schools, especially lower, mid-major teams who typically only get to play one lopsided contest to travel and compete in the tournament in a cost effective manner.
However, when it comes to how the pod system has functioned in practice, it is the larger schools who are benefiting from the structure.
Consider last year's final two schools, Kentucky and Kansas. Kentucky's road to the Final Four went through Louisville and Atlanta. In total, they traveled 475 miles away from campus to get to their two venues. Kansas, the national runners-up, were right behind the Wildcats. Their road through Omaha and St. Louis totaled 501 miles.
This is not to say, the teams with the fewest miles traveled always find themselves in the Final Four.
The Ohio State Buckeyes logged more than 1,000 miles on their way to New Orleans and the Louisville Cardinals traveled a total of 4,043 miles. Rick Pitino's team took a round-about way to the Superdome through west coast swings in Portland and Phoenix.
Ohio State and Louisville defied to odds and traveled long distances to get to the Final Four. But it is clear that Kentucky and Kansas had an advantage by staying close to home.
This is not an article about the merits of the pod-system. (I am personally okay with this, it is good to reward the teams who over-achieve or play at a high level all year). Instead, this is a look at next year's tournament venues and five teams who could make similar runs, like the Wildcats and Jayhawks, and find themselves, close to home and on their way to the Final Four in Atlanta.
Which if these five teams has the best chance to reach the Final Four in 2013?
Why not start with the national runner's up? Kansas loses their two best players in Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson. However, don't expect the Jayhawks to drop off much from last year. They return Jeff Withey and will look to win their 9th straight Big 12 regular season title.
Bill Self's bunch could play first round games in Kansas City, MO and then head to Arlington, TX to play the South Region Final at The New Dallas Cowboys Stadium. Could be a sweet draw for the Jayhawks to return to the Final Four.
TOTAL MILES TRAVELED: 41 + 526 = 567
Syracuse's chances definitely went down when Dion Waiters and Fab Melo declared for the NBA Draft. However, the Orange still return a talented roster including Brandon Triche, Michael Carter-Williams and CJ Fair.
This season is their last year in the Big East (and maybe in the Jim Boeheim-era). If the Orange can repeat their success in the conference, it could never have to leave "Big East Country."
Their first two games could be in Philadelphia and then play a regional final somewhere in New York City. The venue is yet to be determined, however, the NCAA is trying to make the site Madison Square Garden. MSG would be home games for the Orange.
TOTAL MILES TRAVELED: 254 + 246 = 500
UCLA was a dysfunctional mess last season. However, they play in the Pac-12, the weakest of the BCS-Conferences, and they landed one of the top two recruits in Shabazz Mohamed. If UCLA can bounce back in 2013, they could get a path like the 2008 UCLA team that did not have to leave California to make it to the Final Four. UCLA could open in San Jose and then play the West Regional at Staples Center in Los Angeles, only 15 miles from campus.
TOTAL MILES TRAVELED: 336 + 15 = 351
Head Coach Tom Crean and the Hoosiers bring back all five starters and add one of the nation's top recruiting classes to the mix. But the Big Ten can be unpredictable at times, and it won't be a cakewalk.
Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State will all be strong again next season. However, Indiana is the best team in the Big Ten and will probably be a preseason Top 3 team. If they live up to the hype, their road to the Final Four could start close to home in Lexington, KY and then go through Indianapolis.
TOTAL MILES TRAVELED: 176 + 53 = 229
As Entourage character Bob Ryan would say, "what if you could make the Final Four and never have to leave your state. Would that be something you might be interested in?"
The Baylor Bears could make the Final Four without leaving Texas, but like every team who receives a favorable draw in the NCAA Tournament, they are going to have to earn it. In order for Baylor to get the draw of playing in the South Region, they will have to win the Big 12 regular season title, something no team not named "Kansas" has done in the past eight years. If Scott Drew's boys are up for the challenge and can pull it off, they could play 2nd and 3rd round games in Austin and play the Regional games in Arlington. The last school to draw two tournament sites in their home state was UCLA in 2008 and they made the Final Four.
TOTAL MILES TRAVELED: 101 + 103 miles = 204
Only 334 days until Selection Sunday! Who's ready?