Driving range: Where WVU will play matters in March

Dec 29, 2019; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; West Virginia Mountaineers guard Brandon Knapper (2) drives to the basket against Ohio State Buckeyes guard CJ Walker (13) during the first half at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most common comments from West Virginia fans that accompany the latest NCAA Tournament seeding forecast story is “who cares, doesn’t matter” or something of that ilk.

(Not) sorry to break the naysayers bubble, but it matters. It matters to the team and it matters to its fans.

In 2002, in an effort to stem declining attendance, the NCAA instituted a “pod” system for the first two rounds of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. A quick synopsis: Some higher seeded teams are assigned their first- and second-round games location based on the closest available venue. Tournament sites change annually and are decided years in advance, so the closest locale for any particular team is dependent on the particular year in question.

This only applies to first- and second-round games. Regional assignment (East, South, Midwest, West) is unrelated to specific location (outside of the assignment of the No. 1 seeded team(s)).

The Mountaineers (15-3, 4-2 Big 12) are in the midst of the kind of season that has the potential to make them one of those teams that get preferential pod slotting. It matters a little to the team because shorter travel is (slightly) preferable to longer travel.

It matters a lot more to the fans.

For many fans, where their team plays is the difference between going to the games and watching them on TV. For most fans, flying to attend first- and second-round games isn’t financially feasible, especially given the short notice (Selection Sunday followed by the first-round games on the following Thursday and Friday).

So for a lot Mountaineers fans, where West Virginia plays is a HUGE deal.

A maximum of two schools per venue are slotted for preferential pod placement. Some venues may only have one team slotted and some may have none. It’s all dependent on who are the top seeds and what venues are hosting.

There are eight cities hosting first- and second-round tournament games in 2020: Albany, N.Y.; Spokane, Wash.; St. Louis; Tampa, Fla.; Greensboro, N.C.; Omaha, Neb.; Sacramento, Calif; Cleveland.

With that established, what are the ideal available first- and second-round venues for Mountaineers Nation?

Closest venue: Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, Cleveland

Cleveland is a 203-mile, 3 hour, 20 minute drive from Morgantown according to Google Maps. Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse is the closest 2020 first- and second-round venue in relation of the WVU campus.

To get to Cleveland, root against: Michigan State, Dayton, Louisville and Butler. These four are all in the Mountaineers neighborhood in the rankings (and likely in the eyes of NCAA Selection Committee). Cleveland is the closest venue for Michigan State and Dayton. It’s the second closet (after St. Louis) for Louisville and Butler. It’s early, but it should be a three-team fight between WVU, Michigan State and Dayton for two preferred spots to play next to Lake Erie.

Next closest venue: Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, N.C.

Greensboro is a 356-mile, 5 hour, 37 minute drive from Morgantown according to Google Maps. However, for West Virginia fans in the southern half of the state, driving south to Greensboro is a shorter trip than north to Cleveland.

To get to Greensboro, root against: Duke, Maryland and Auburn. Barring a collapse of epic proportions, Duke will occupy one of the preferred slots in Greensboro. So WVU’s competition for the other slot is likely to come from Maryland and Auburn. Current projections have WVU seeded higher than either, but at the midway point, there’s a lot of room for movement.

If the Mountaineers don’t get a slot in Cleveland or Greensboro, their in-house contingency will be significantly smaller. It doesn’t mean they won’t have fans in attendance. It doesn’t mean they can’t win if they’re scheduled in one of the other six venues.

But it does mean a significant number of West Virginia fans won’t be able to attend the games than would if WVU plays in Cleveland or Greensboro.