April 23, 2010

Ranked 15th, men deserve a nationals bid

Breaking news: The best men’s tennis teams in the nation don’t actually play for the men’s tennis national championship.

Ok, maybe I’m being a little bit dramatic. Chicago is still in the hunt for a bid to the NCAA tournament. But with the season the Maroons have put together, they shouldn’t have to be “alive”; they should be in.

The real news is that a broken selection system has the Maroons’ postseason status in question. When the Maroons head to UAAs in Pittsburgh this weekend, they’ll be playing for something bigger than a higher finish in the conference; they’ll be playing for their postseason lives. And as the 15th-ranked team in the country, that shouldn’t be the case.

I should take a second now to say that they could have avoided this situation if they had taken care of business throughout the season. A loss at Kalamazoo in March put the Maroons in an early-season hole, and without that loss, you wouldn’t be reading this column.

But if the Maroons find themselves mourning on tournament selection day, it’ll be less about their own failed season and more about a system that continues to keep strong teams out of the NCAA tournament.

Let me break it down: There are three pools from which teams can reach the tournament. Pool A consists of the champions of conferences with automatic bids, Pool B draws independent teams and those without auto bids, and Pool C offers at-large bids to the next best teams.

Chicago doesn’t belong to Pool A this season because of the good people over at Wash U (ranked second in the country) and Emory (ranked third). That shouldn’t eliminate them from NCAA contention.

The issue is that Pool C doesn’t have enough spots. Six at-large bids, more than six very good teams won’t win their conferences this season.

Oh, and I lied: This isn’t breaking news.

Chicago had the same problem last season. They were ranked 17th at the end of last year, just outside the NCAA picture. At the time, I thought it was just a case of “Someone had to be left out.”

Things have come into focus this season. Throughout the year, chatter on the internet has surrounded that one loss to Kalamazoo. Chicago has gone 13–5 (two losses to D-III teams), and it’s still been a nearly-foregone conclusion that Chicago wouldn’t make the tournament.

This weekend, the Maroons have a chance to rectify things. If they can find a way past Wash U and into the finals, an NCAA ticket will be theirs. If they win the third-place match (likely against Carnegie), their tournament hopes will still be alive, although the team will still be teetering on the edge of NCAA contention. The NCAA calls Chicago the 15th-best team in the country, but teetering is probably still their best hope this weekend.

People tell me the college football BCS is biased. From where I stand, the D-III tennis tournament is the definition of an unfair system.

The NCAA needs to strongly consider a change in the tournament, whether through expanding the field or shifting bids between fields. There will be 27 automatic qualifiers this season, many of whom aren’t even in the top 30. I’m all for regional fairness, but why call it a national tournament if the best teams in the nation aren’t playing.

41 teams will compete in the NCAA tournament this season. The 15th best might not be among them, even though it doesn’t have to be that way. Some kind of fair.