The Honda Center in Anaheim is just under 100 miles away from the San Diego St. University campus. That means the Aztecs will have to travel about 2,800 miles less than the Huskies to get to Thursday's game and if history is any indication that is very, very bad news for the Huskies.
Since 1951 UConn has played an NCAA tournament game in the home state (or right next to it in the case of Washington D.C.) of their opponent 14 times. Their record in those games? 2-12. To be fair, the tournament has changed a lot in the last 60 years, so it is not representative to look at UConn's entire history in the area, so it is probably best to disregard anything that happened before 1990 (with apologies to the 1960 NYU that somehow laid a 19-point beatdown on the Huskies).
That leaves us with a sample of seven games and seven losses. They are, in order:
1992 - Second Round - 55-78 loss to Ohio St. in Cincinnati
1994 - Sweet 16 - 60-69 OT loss to Florida in Miami
1995 - Elite Eight - 96-102 loss to UCLA in Oakland
1998 - Elite Eight - 64-75 loss to North Carolina in Greensboro
2003 - Sweet 16 - 82-78 loss to Texas in San Antonio
2006 - Elite Eight - 84-86 OT loss to George Mason in Washington, D.C.
2009 - Final Four - 73-82 loss to Michigan St. in Detroit
There is an important caveat here because in the modern tournament if a team is playing close to home it almost always means they earned that privilege through a good season. In fact, only one of the seven teams that UConn lost to failed to make the Final Four (Ohio St.). Still, the numbers and history are not comforting.
This is not just a UConn thing either.
Teams playing closer to home have a large NCAA advantage and it involves more than just skill differential as Nate Silver pointed out in the New York Times. For example:
Based on their seeds, teams that are playing at least 1,500 miles closer to home should have won about 65 percent of these games since 2003. Instead, they've won 79 percent. Likewise, teams with a geographic advantage of between 1,000 and 1,500 miles should have won 61 percent of the time - but they've actually won 71 percent of the time. ...
By projecting a margin of victory based on the seeding differentials and comparing it to actual tournament scores, we find that teams playing 1,500 or more miles closer to home beat expectations by about 5 points on average, while teams with an edge of between 1,000 and 1,500 miles do so by between 2 to 3 points. These differences are highly similar to the home court advantage in college basketball, which has been found to be worth about 4 points.
This should not be too surprising, the combination of travel, downtime in hotels and lack of fan support will wear on a team and put them at a disadvantage. That's the danger for UConn.
I had the good fortune (or misfortune depending on your perspective) to attend two of the above losses, the 2006 game with George Mason and the 2009 Final Four matchup with Michigan St. Both times the small contingent of UConn fans was completely overpowered by the hordes of Mason and MSU supporters. The games were not played on campus and they did not have large and boisterous student sections, but when the Colonials or Spartans got down or needed some extra encouragement they got it in spades from their 20,000 or 70,000 supporters, respectively.
Based on what I saw I am convinced that UConn would have beaten George Mason on a neutral court, and while they still may have lost to Michigan St. they would have stood a better chance if the game was played anywhere but Michigan.
Being at home is not perfect. In 2006 Rudy Gay (who was from Baltimore) spoke to the media about the distraction created when seemingly everyone he knew was trying to get a hold of him to get tickets, access or whatever and Jim Calhoun has often spoke fondly of playing out west because it limits distractions. Nine of San Diego St.'s players are from California and I'm sure they'll have plenty of distractions this week. Husky fans may be table to take some comfort from that, but it should be limited.
Basketball success on this level is new to Aztec fans and people of San Diego. They will be as excited for this game as any fanbase could be.
UConn certainly could beat San Diego St. on Thursday. A lot of people will predict that outcome and it would not surprise me in the least. The Huskies are talented, have a Hall-of-Fame coach and they'll have the best player on the floor. But when you get this late in March games get close and every inch and little advantage counts. UConn might win, but it will be an uphill battle.