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Going the Distance
By Brian Ward, CH2M HILL, Inc.

Did team travel make a difference in the outcome?

With a welcoming grin on his face, James Arthur Boeheim calmly stalked the sidelines of the Super Dome in New Orleans, Louisiana,urging the Syracuse University basketball team toward victory. It was the 1987 National Championship game, his team clung to a 73-72 advantage, and the Syracuse graduate was on the verge of making history. The 42-year-old had started his path to the Final Four as a young kid fresh out of high school. Not necessarily regarded as a blue chip talent, he earned his way onto the Syracuse basketball team as a nonscholarship walk-on. Boeheim excelled as a player, then as an assistant coach, before being promoted to the position of head coach at age 31. By the time his Syracuse team arrived in Louisiana, he had built a formidable basketball powerhouse. The Orangemen were ranked number one in the country and favored to win their first national championship.

Jim Boeheim was the coach of the victorious Syracuse University basketball team in 1987.

Boeheim's mild grin and boyish face were sublimely countered by the stern countenance of Robert Montgomery Knight. A former head coach at West Point and already a basketball legend, Knight had a scowl rivaling that of the sternest of military commanders. He was only four years older than his rival coach, but the weight of his personality and his stature among the coaching elite—not to mention his prematurely white hair—made him seem far more authoritative than the professorial Boeheim. In addition to his unparalleled intensity, Knight was perhaps best known for the 1976 Indiana team he coached to an undefeated season—something that has not been accomplished since. Though he won a national championship as a player at Ohio State and he is currently the head coach at Texas Tech, Knight is as closely tied to Indiana University as Boeheim is to Syracuse.

Knight's cadre wore their home white uniforms, appropriate in light of the path they took to reach New Orleans. Indiana's first two games of the 1987 tournament took place at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis, roughly 50 miles north on Highway 37 from its campus in Bloomington, Indiana. Here the Hoosiers had little trouble placating the overwhelmingly cream-and-crimson-clad crowd of 34,000, defeating underdogs Fairfield and Auburn and earning a berth in the Sweet Sixteen.

Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati hosted Indiana's next two victories. Though no longer playing in their home state, the Hoosiers had still managed to travel a considerably shorter distance than their opponents. Cincinnati is about a two-hour drive from Bloomington—far closer than it is to either Duke (in Durham, North Carolina) or Louisiana State (in Baton Rouge, Louisiana). Despite the comfortable Midwestern surroundings, the Hoosiers had to earn their trip to the Final Four. Duke took them to the final minutes before succumbing 88-82 on the strength of Cincinnati native Rick Calloway's 21 points and eight rebounds. Two evenings later, Indiana overcame a late 12-point LSU lead thanks to the heroics of All-American Bill Alford.

In all, the Indiana basketball team had spent barely four hours on the road in earning a Final Four berth. By the time the team played the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV) in the national semifinal game, it had still traveled less than 1,000 miles. This was in stark contrast to the 4,000-plus miles that the UNLV team, the opposing team in the Sweet Sixteen, had traveled. Similarly, Syracuse had enjoyed the benefit of a home advantage literally, in the case of having played its first two games on its home court, the Carrier Dome, and traveled more than 3,000 miles less than its semifinal opponent, Providence College. A relatively light-traveled Syracuse team had little trouble with its Big East Conference brethren in their semifinal matchup, defeating Providence 77-63. In the other game, Indiana was stretched to the limit by the up-tempo UNLV squad, but Indiana ultimately outlasted UNLV 97-93, setting up the scenario at hand.

On this New Orleans night, the game would come down to its final possession. The teams had traded blows throughout the contest, with Boeheim's top-ranked Orangemen leading the number two Hoosiers by one point in the final minute. The outcome would be decided by Boeheim's trademark 2-3 zone defense, Knight's ability to devise one last effective offensive attack, and the energy summoned up by the now physically and mentally exhausted players. With the clock running out, Indiana set up its offense. Logic seemed to dictate that Steve Alford would take the final shot, as he was the Hoosiers' most prolific offensive player. However, as Daryl Thomas held the ball near the top of the key, something unexpected occurred. Thomas swung the ball around to his left, made a pin-point pass to Keith Smart, and in one smooth motion, Smart launched his jump shot as time expired. As the net settled into stillness, the fans clothed in orange stared in shocked silence while their crimson-clothed counterparts roared. Indiana had won the national championship.

On this night, the state of Indiana adopted the French Quarter for the evening, while the Hoosiers and their fans reveled in a notably New Orleans-style brand of euphoria as if they had discovered yet another home city on their way to basketball history.

Note: While the anecdotal evidence referenced certainly indicates a correlation between distance traveled and the outcome of this NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament game, such evidence cannot truly be relied on to establish the existence of such a correlation. In the accompanying article, "Spatial Madness: An Analysis of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament," the authors use a statistical methodology to analyze historical data on distance traveled by teams and game outcomes to test this correlation.

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