Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Current NCAA Selection Process For DIII Tennis: An Argument For and Against

This is something I've referenced in many articles, but not something I've addressed directly with a post. With this post, I hope to explain why it is the way it is, why people hate it, and what can be done. The NCAA Handbook has yet to be released for the 2011 Championships, but if you go by last year's process, there are 28 AQs (teams who win their conference), 9 Independents (teams who don't have conference affiliation or are from non-AQ conferences) and 5 spots for teams from AQ conferences that don't win their conference. I'll now discuss both sides of this and I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

Pro: The NCAA tournament is about crowning a champion. How that champion gets the trophy is irrelevant. In the end, #1 is going to beat #2. If you look at my pre-season top 25, with the current process, #13 in the country would not make the tournament. Why, though, does this matter at all? During the past three years, how many Pool C teams that were not top seeds in their NCAA region made it to the Final 8? The answer is 0. There have been a total of 18 Pool C teams compete in the tournament over the past 3 years. 8 of them were top seeds in their regional and 10 were not. All 10 who weren't lost in the Sweet 16 or before. So why then, does everyone make such a big fuss about teams ranked #15 not making the tournament when they have no impact on the eventual outcome? D3 tennis is not like D1 basketball, where you have so much depth that a Butler can come out of nowhere and make the finals. The team who wins the tournament will always be one of the top 4 or 5 teams in the country. That's just the way it is.

The NCAA's theory for D3 is to give a fair chance to compete in the post-season to all teams, rather than selecting the "best" teams. In an average year in D3 tennis, 12 or 13 AQ conferences will be represented in the ITA's top 30 teams. With the old system and a 32-team bracket, that means 15 of the current AQ conferences wouldn't have access to the post-season. Why should those teams even bother having a season? What's the end result? They win their conference tournament and that's it? In doing a little research for this article, I was looking at last year's NCAA bracket and noticed something interesting. There was one undefeated team out of the 42. It wasn't Middlebury, or Emory, or Amherst. It was Western Connecticut State. Without the current system, how would WCSU get rewarded for their undefeated season? It must have been a treat for them to play in NCAAs. Before the 2010 season, what if the WCSU coach called Amherst or Williams and asked to play them during the regular season? He would get laughed at. Unknown teams from small conferences don't have access to ranked teams and this is their argument for the current system. Williams doesn't want to waste their time playing the weak teams in New England. A coach's job is to make his team the best they can be. The coaches of top 25 teams take their jobs very seriously and they want to play each other so their teams can be battle tested when it comes time for the post-season. This leaves little to no exposure for the other 250 teams in D3. The top 50-75 are in their own little bubble and they often forget that they make up 1/5 of the entire division. D3 is in a way an old boys club, where the traditional powers get together and beat up on each other every year at Indoors and during spring break in Claremont. Its very difficult to break into that elite club if you're not an academically elite school, but we have seen a perfect example over the past 2 seasons.

NC Wesleyan has come from not having a program to being a top 10 team and the #6 seed at this year's ITA Indoors. Why did we take notice of NC Wesleyan two years ago? Because they happened to be in the same conference as Christopher Newport, a team everyone is familiar with. What if a team in the middle of Iowa suddenly recruited a great team of foreign players? How would we know? The best team on their schedule would probably be Grinnell or Luther, teams we don't pay much attention to. With the current NCAA system, we can see the exponential rise of a team like NCW. They can gain access to the post-season and we will take notice when they crush Mary Washington and make Emory sweat. The point of D3 is to play for the love of the game, and the winner of the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference may care just as much about their tennis as the winner of the UAA. So how then, can we not give everyone a chance to compete in the post-season?

Con: What happened to Western Connecticut State last year? They lost to Ohio Northern 5-0. What happened to Ohio Northern? They lost to Carnegie Mellon 5-0. I can predict with great accuracy who the top teams are going to be in D3 this year. Maybe not in perfect order, but generally, everyone knows who's going to be good. Let's look at the other side of the argument about Pool C teams not making an impact. For argument's sake, let's say that the top 32 teams in the country would qualify for the tournament under the ideal scenario. How many teams, in the past 4 years, who would not have made the tournament under the 32 team system, made it to the Sweet 16 or farther? Restated, how many unranked teams have made it out of the second round of the tournament? The answer is 1 and that's Luther in 2009. Let's say 20 of your NCAA teams are ranked. That means 22 are unranked. Multiply that by 4 years and that's 88 unranked teams who have played in the tournament during the past 4 years. 1 made it to the Sweet 16, and no further. Haven't we proved the point that these teams don't belong? How can WCSU possibly feel good about stealing a spot from Bowdoin, a team that would absolutely wipe the floor with them anytime and anywhere.

This system is uniform across every D3 sport to the best of my knowledge. I want to examine why it doesn't work in tennis and compare that to basketball and soccer. It's become extreme in men's tennis, now having only 5 teams qualify through Pool C. In women's tennis, I believe 9 still qualify through Pool C. I could live with 9, at least we would go down to #17 or #18 before someone wouldn't make it. Tennis, for the most part, is a rich person's sport. The kids who are going D3 are mostly from wealthy families who can afford a private university. A wealthy family typically means emphasis on education. Look at the teams who made the NCAA finals last year: Middlebury, Amherst, Emory, Wash U, Trinity, CMS, Carnegie Mellon, and the 8th could have easily been Johns Hopkins. You may as well rename it the Academic Bowl. The best academic schools dominate tennis, and there are a high density of those schools in the same conferences. You rarely see a school that's not an academic powerhouse break into the top echelon of D3 tennis. Cruz is there because they've been doing it for years and NCW is there because they get foreign players. Gustavus and Kzoo are weak now because they don't have the academic draw to get top recruits. Soccer and basketball are not as expensive to play as a kid. Due to those sports having more D1 scholarships, you get a weaker crowd in D3, not necessarily kids who are just looking for academics. Soccer has 4 academically elite schools currently in their top 10. Basketball has only 2 in their top 10. I have 8 of 10 in my rankings. There are still second-rate academic schools dominating those sports in D3. This just doesn't happen in tennis.

The NCAA system for D3 just doesn't work for tennis. It's unfair that Cruz can basically tank their season and still make the tournament, whereas Redlands and Chicago have incredible pressure to win every time they step on the court, because if they don't, they don't make NCAAs. If the average person saw that the #13 team in the country wasn't qualifying for a 42-team tournament, they would laugh. Think about that and think about how ridiculous it is. The Pool system just doesn't work for tennis. Even the coaches of the terrible Pool A teams know that. You should not omit a team from the NCAA tournament when they would beat 2/3 of the field easily. The NCAA system for D3 tennis needs to be changed immediately, even the teams who it benefits know that. The problem is that the NCAA is too ignorant to see it.