October 9, 2009

Making the cut: the keys to reaching DIII’s postseason

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As a D-III fan, sometimes you have to content yourself with a humbler sports experience. The rivalries at this level are more muted, there aren’t stadiums with seats enough for the adult population of Guam, students won’t tent outside Ratner to get front row seats at the game, and it’s only the rare bookie who takes action on UChicago–Brandeis.

One thing fans don’t give up when they take a rooting interest in DIII is the excitement of chasing the postseason. The bubble watch, bracketology, and Selection Sunday (well, more often Monday) are alive and well in DIII, and already teams on campus are working to position themselves for NCAA tournament berths.

Just what that means differs from sport to sport, but broadly, making the cut for NCAAs is similar for all of the team sports: baseball, basketball, football, soccer, softball, tennis, and volleyball.

In all of those, the Maroons compete for slots in a national championship tournament. Even D-III football has a 32-team playoff, and has had since 1973, giving it 36 years of bragging rights over its less-fortunate sibling, the Football Bowl Series (FBS).

The catch there is that Chicago’s position in D-III football is a lot like Boise State’s in the FBS. The UAA champion doesn’t get an automatic bid, but champions in 23 other conferences do, leaving only nine spots up for grabs. Three of those are reserved for teams that, like Chicago, are independent or come from conferences without automatic bids; the other six are at-large, open to anyone.

In football, about 30 teams compete for the three independent bids, and more than 200 for the six at-large bids. The Maroons have to be at the top of either of those pools to make the tournament, and good luck getting there, however talented your team may be.

“Go undefeated,” football head coach Dick Maloney said, when asked what his team has to do to qualify. “If you go undefeated, you’re going to get in. If you lose one, you have a possibility.”

Baseball and softball are in a similar position. To have an automatic bid in a sport, a conference needs seven teams competing, and while the UAA hits that mark in basketball, soccer, tennis, and volleyball, it’s just shy in baseball and softball.

Unlike football, the NCAA doesn’t cap the tournament field at 32 teams in those other sports. For them, the total number of qualifiers is figured by taking the number of teams that play in DIII, then dividing that by 6.5, or by 7.5 in tennis. That usually means a field of between 40 and 60 teams; this year, 41 teams will qualify in men’s tennis, and 59 in men’s soccer.

Along with increased field size come more at-large and independent bids, so teams in those sports can slip up during the regular season, not win the UAA title, and still make the NCAA tournament.

But, for teams that don’t get the conference’s bid—and for those that can’t, like baseball and softball—there’s a complicated calculus involved in getting a bid. In essence, the NCAA ranks teams against other schools in their region during the final weeks of the season, using a formula that draws on the team’s record, regional win percentage, opponents’ win percentage, and opponents’ opponents’ win percentage.

With those regional rankings in hand, the NCAA committees meet, usually on the Sunday after a sport’s regular season ends. The committees select the best teams that didn’t get automatic or independent bids, and there’s no guarantee that each region will receive the same number of bids. More teams are selected from stronger regions, fewer from weaker regions.

(As always, there’s an exception to all of this: Cross country teams can qualify collectively for the NCAA meet if they finish in the top five at their regional meet—regional rankings aren’t a factor. The top two teams at the regional meet qualify automatically, and the committee can invite teams three through five at its discretion; the Midwest Region, where Chicago competes, usually sends the full five teams. Like tennis players, runners can qualify individually too, but that’s a matter for another article.)

Once the teams in the championship are chosen, the committee has to craft its bracket and chose match-ups. The overriding factor here is geographic proximity; an effort is made to pair the best teams with the weakest in first round games, but more important is putting all teams at a venue within 500 miles of their campus. Typically, four teams are put at each venue for first- and second-round games, and although the committee tries to keep the best teams at home, sometimes the 500-mile rule means a weaker team hosts.

Once the committee has met, the field is decided, and the match-ups and host sites are chosen, the drama still isn’t over. Lest D-III athletes miss out on the nerve-wracking proceedings D-I basketball players go through on the Selection Sunday specials, the NCAA broadcasts the announcement of the brackets.

The announcement usually happens the Monday after brackets are finalized, and teams can gather to learn their fate together. The selection process leading up to that moment is by turns complicated and convoluted, but if at last Chicago’s name is revealed on the bracket, it all suddenly seems worth it.

— Additional reporting by Alex Sisto