These days, the NCAA tournament isn't about a place. It finishes up in a football dome, this year in Atlanta. In early rounds, television viewers often aren't sure where games are even taking place as they switch channels looking for upsets they picked in their office pools.
This year's field, to be finalized and announced Sunday evening, has a "wide open" label, since schools kept trading off the No. 1 ranking in the polls, with Gonzaga, once considered a "mid-major" darling, now top-ranked at the end of the regular season.
In the Associated Press poll, Indiana began on top, kept the spot until mid-December, then was displaced by Duke, followed by Louisville, Duke again, Michigan, Indiana again, and finally the Zags. Miami, another basketball upstart of sorts (although coached by a man who has been to the Final Four with a genuine mid-major), reached as high as No. 2 before falling back.
Being "wide-open" most definitely does not mean that any school, from any seed, could win the NCAA title. More like, any school could lose at any time. Evidence: The last-place team in the Ivy League won by 18 points on the road against a school that beat a team that may snag a No. 1 seed. So there's just one degree of separation between Louisville, a prime national-title contender, and Columbia, in the Ivy cellar.
The link, of course, is Villanova, which got its act together and also managed to beat Marquette, Georgetown, and Syracuse, and expects to hear its own name announced when the field is unveiled.
After months of uneven basketball, especially at the defensive end, Temple proved it belonged in the field down the stretch and could be a tough out.
La Salle became the local question mark going into the Atlantic Ten tournament. Were victories over Butler and at Virginia Commonwealth and a 21-8 record highlighted by a tie for third in the power-packed A-10 enough for the Explorers, or did they need another win over Butler in Brooklyn? (They didn't get the win, and will be one of the schools sweating the most on Sunday.)
Under tournament guidelines, the locals are allowed to play at the Wells Fargo Center this week. But the selection committee is unlikely to hurt opposing teams by matching them up with Philadelphia teams in Philadelphia, so Big Five fans should prepare to travel.
Duke is a favorite to end up here, if it gets a top seed after losing to Maryland in the ACC tournament.
The Blue Devils certainly are part of the history of NCAA hoops in the city, highlighted by one of the most memorable endings to a sporting event. Grant Hill's full-court pass to Christian Laettner, for his turnaround and last-second foul line jumper, gave Duke a 104-103 overtime victory over Kentucky and a spot in the 1992 Final Four, which was itself overshadowed by that night at the Spectrum.
Don't be surprised if another team that knows its way around town, Georgetown, is here, too. Otto Porter Jr., the Big East player of the year, may like another shot at the Wells Fargo Center after being subdued most of the way in a recent loss to Villanova.
Two regionals - the East and the Midwest, for instance - can have subregionals in Philadelphia. That's another confusing aspect for viewers, done so that more of the higher seeds can play closer to home.
In picking your brackets, look for the pros. And don't wonder what class they're in. Kentucky loaded up with freshmen future first-rounders last year and swept to the title. No player is considered to be on the level of Kentucky's Anthony Davis, an eventual top overall NBA draft choice.
Indiana has two potential lottery picks in Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, so knock the Hoosiers off at your peril.
Kansas is another school with two potential first-rounders in Ben McLemore and Jeff Withey.
Michigan has a top player in point guard Trey Burke, who originally committed to Penn State. The Big Ten offered the best basketball in the country this season, with thrilling games week after week. The Big East was the other top league, but did it another way, with a lot of defensively oriented matchups that provided more spills than thrills.
Of course, the breakup of the Big East is part of the story line of this year's season, and will be through the NCAA tournament as Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and Notre Dame all head for the Atlantic Coast Conference, to be followed a year later by Louisville.
The Big East name will live on with a league that includes Villanova and Georgetown, and takes in Butler, Xavier, and others. Connecticut and Temple will be part of a league that includes a lot of former Conference USA members, and doesn't have a name yet.
One of the beauties of March Madness: Conference Realignment Madness doesn't matter. Is anybody thinking about which conference a school is from as the games wind down?
Out-of-town NCAA teams have their share of locals. James Madison's Matt Brady, a former St. Joseph's assistant coach and Paul VI graduate, will make his first NCAA appearance as a head coach. Wisconsin's Bo Ryan (Chester) is an NCAA perennial. Players from the area include Duke's Amile Jefferson (Friends Central), UNLV's Savon Goodman (Constitution), Syracuse's Rakeem Christmas (Academy of the New Church), and Georgetown's Jabril Trawick (Abington Friends).
"If it reflects our regular season in any way, [the tournament] should be extremely competitive and exciting," said selection committee chairman Mike Bobinski, who just left his job as athletic director at Xavier to take over at Georgia Tech.
Bobinski mentioned that when the committee began meeting Wednesday, he personally had six or seven schools still in the running to be one of the four top seeds. He did not believe there was an unmanageable number of teams in consideration for at-large spots. "At the end, it always gets sticky," Bobinski said. "There's always a next team, or a few next teams."
He doesn't have any greater weight as chairman than other panel members, but Bobinski said he personally rewards "good wins" over quality opponents more than deducting for "bad losses." The reality: This approach favors the more powerful conferences, since they have more opportunities within the league to accumulate good wins (i.e., Villanova this season) and also are generally more attractive to the networks putting together marquee nonconference matchups.
On a conference call last week, Bobinski was asked about a comment made by Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds, who suggested the sport was "in shambles" because of all the one-and-done players. (A common rejoinder: Maybe Dodds was just thinking about his own program in shambles). But Bobinski was asked about the growing perception that college basketball is struggling with a grinding game resulting in low shooting percentages and low scores.
"With all respect to DeLoss and all his years of experience and perspective on all of the different sports that we offer, I would tell you that I don't agree with him that college basketball is anywhere near being in a shambles," Bobinski said. "Has this been an interesting year? Sure it has. I think a lot of factors come into play as to why it is what it is. The one-and-done rule is a piece of it, but just a piece of it. It is by no means the whole story nor the whole answer.
"I think in general as I look at the season and the number of last-possession games that we've experienced, the number of overtime games, just as recently as [last] Sunday, the Indiana-Michigan game, an amazing finish to a really high-level, competitive game, we've had plenty of great moments during the course of the season."
Bobinski added that he thinks the tournament is annually "a cleansing moment" for college sports as a whole. At the least it is a restart. Whatever happened from mid-November through Sunday afternoon is all prelude.
Bobinski hasn't been around for 74 years, but he said of the tournament, "In my experience, it very rarely disappoints."
Contact Mike Jensen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @jensenoffcampus.