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Broken Brackets: The Problems With Pool B In DIII Lax

They say the first step is admitting you have a problem.

Well then, I think it is safe to say we have a problem. By we, I mean Division III lacrosse, and by a problem, I mean the bastardization of the NCAA tournament selection process that is Pool B.

For those unfamiliar with the selection process, let me give you a brief overview of the three types of bids:

-Pool A: Bids for the winners of conferences with automatic qualifiers. There are sixteen such bids this year
-Pool B: Bids for teams from conferences without automatic qualifiers. There are four such bids this year.
-Pool C: Bids for teams from conferences with automatic qualifiers who do not win their conference tournament. There are six such bids this year.

That’s twenty-six teams making the tournament from a one hundred and seventy-nine team NCAA Division. Of those twenty-six teams, six will come from conferences with AQ’s but without a team capable of competing against, and beating, nationally ranked opponents (conferences like the NAC, Landmark, Little East, SCAC, Skyline and MAC).

Sorry guys, but that’s just ther eality of the situation.  I’m not opposed to those conferences getting AQ bids because the promise of an NCAA tournament bid is something you can sell to recruits and that helps build programs, and improves the quality of play in DIII in long run.

Nonetheless, we are down to twenty spots from which a national champion must eventually be crowned. Now, anyone who has tried to do a top-20 poll knows how difficult the process of trying to select the top twenty teams in the country really is. There are twelve or fifteen teams that are pretty much unanimously ranked, though even then their order varies widely. After that, it is pretty much a crapshoot, as too many teams have simultaneously solid but flawed resumes.

Perhaps it is a team that is undefeated but lacks a quality win, or a team that has won some big games but also lost a few that maybe they shouldn’t have.  In any case, differentiating between the members of this group is extremely difficult.
Obviously, the NCAA does not select teams in the same way I do for a top-20 poll. They have conference tournaments that hand out automatic qualifiers to fill some of the spots.  The remaining teams are evaluated on a set of criteria that, while complicated, are at least reasonably predictable. Laxpower’s D-III has proven year after year that correctpredictions can be made on who will make the tournament and who will be left at home.

Imperfect as the criteria may be, they at least create some order out of the chaos which is more than can be said for someone like me, trying to determine who is the best based on empirical evidence.

That said, even the criteria can get dicey when we are talking about a very limited number of spots (more on that in a bit). Teams that are right on the bubble can have their post-season hopes fulfilled or dashed on the basis of differences in things like strength of schedule, wins versus regionally ranked opponents and other imperfect statistics. And that’s the unfortunate truth of it; even the criteria are an imperfect judgment of who is better.

To me, that means we need to create a better margin for error in deciding what teams are deserving of an opportunity to compete for a national championship. Creating a comfortable margin for error isn’t that complicated from where I sit.

Letting more teams into the tournament from the Pool C group, where deserving teams are left out every year, would give more peace of mind to the fans of the sport who are often left wondering what could have been. Geneseo fans know what I mean; they’ve been on the outside looking in more than they care to think about. Do I think some of those Geneseo teams could have made noise had they made the tournament? Absolutely.

Last year’s team lost to Cortland 4-3 in the regular season (throw out the SUNYAC championship game, All-American goalie Dennis Costanza had the worst game of his college career and that killed any hope of a Geneseo win).  Sure, they lost a bad game to Brockport, but their only other losses were to Cortland and RIT, both teams that made the tournament. Don’t tell met hey couldn’t have been dangerous in the tournament.

Geneseo Lacrosse lax
Should Geneseo have been to the tourney more times?

My point isn’t that Geneseo deserved to make it last year under the current system. Let me be clear: they did not.  However, when I see a very good team like Geneseo sitting on the sideline because of the current selection system, my immediate thought is that the system needs to change. Of course, the question then becomes what should be changed?

Some point to the criteria as the source of the problem and I have to disagree with that.  No matter what measuring stick we use, there will always be flaws and disagreements. Two years of trying to do the forum poll on Laxpower has taught me that (Editor’s Note: Connor Wilson aka Wheniwasakid… is in the same boat.  It’s tough!). The real solution is eliminating Pool B bids and combining Pool B and C in order to create what we will call Pool Anyone-Who-Didn’t-Win-An-AQ. A mouthful, I know. We’ll settle for calling it Pool D for the purposes of my argument.

Pool D is awesome for a few reasons.

One, it has ten spots up for grabs.  That’s a lot more margin for error, which makes me a lot more comfortable leaving out that eleventh Pool D team because we have accepted more quality teams already, which reduces the odds of excluding a team truly capable of challenging for a national championship. In the end, we have to leave someone out, but I’d much rather it be the eleventh best team by the criteria than the seventh.

Two, it forces conferences like the NCAC to get another team and become a conference with an AQ in order to guarantee they get a team in the tournament every year.  As it stands now, the NCAC is all but guaranteed to get two or three teams a year in the NCAA tournament. And that’s wrong. I’m not opposed to NCAC representation in the NCAA tournament because it helps sell the programs to recruits, which in turn grows the game, but they should be required to work within the same confines that other teams do.  It is fundamentally unfair to the teams in better conferences than the NCAC (and the NCAC doesn’t get more than a team or two into the tournament most years) to watch year after year as the NCAC teams capitalize on the ridiculousness of Pool B bids.

Denison Ohio Wesleyan Lacrosse NCAC
Two of the teams in the NCAC: Denison and OWU.

This isn’t an indictment of the NCAC teams, though it may read like one to this point.  I don’t blame them for working within the system that currently exists in order to guarantee their conference as many bids as possible.  That’s a shrewd game plan for growing the programs in the conference right now, and I applaud their ingenuity.  No, the blame for this is laid squarely at the feet of the NCAA for perpetuating a significant flaw, in their own system. The job of the NCAA tournament is to crown the best team in the country.  That’s it.  Period.  Now, I’m not opposed to using the tournament to grow the game, so long as it is done in a way that does not compromise the aforementioned mission of the tournament.

I have no objection to giving automatic qualifiers to conferences like the SCAC, which gives DIII lacrosse an expansion southward that is great to see. I only ask that once the dust settles from the battle for the automatic qualifiers, the remaining teams are judged as a single group. To do otherwise is to deny deserving teams what they’ve worked so hard to earn.