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NCAA Regional Rankings: The dry run that isn’t

On Wednesday the NCAA released its first set of regional rankings, which provide a look at teams have the best chance of receiving at-large bids to the 2019 NCAA Tournament if they fail to win their conference’s automatic qualifying bid.

If you want to dig into the ranking process, here are a few shovels to get you started.

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The first set of publicly released regional rankings is sometimes described as a dry run because it doesn’t include one important criterion, records against regionally ranked opponents. It’s hard for the eight geographically based regional ranking committees to take that into consideration because they don’t know which teams are being ranked in other regions. And while you eventually can solve that through an iterative process on Selection Sunday, that’s not worthwhile for this first set.

But to what degree is first set of regional rankings a good predictor of which teams will eventually get one of the coveted at-large bids? I made a list of all the at-large selections over the last five seasons on the men’s side and then compared that to their regional rankings. You can download and play with that data here.

I don’t know how well the first set of regional rankings predicts which teams will get the at-large bids but it’s a very good predictor of which ones won’t. If your team wasn’t listed in the first set regional rankings, it’s almost certain they aren’t getting one of those bids, no matter what happens over the next three weeks.

For a large part of Division III, this is a missive from Captain Obvious. By virtue of their relatively low winning percentage or their weak strength of schedule, a lot of teams should already know their only path to the NCAA Tournament is the conference’s automatic qualifying bid.

But for those teams that weren’t ranked on Wednesday and are nursing hopes that they are right on the cusp of being in the at-large conversation — if they can just get hot and the right teams above them get cold – recent history is not on their side.

Over the last five seasons only three teams ultimately received at-large bids despite not appearing in the first set of regional rankings:

New York University received an at-large bid in 2016 despite not being in the first set of East Region rankings. The East Region was also one of Division III’s smallest, so there were only six teams ranked in the East that year.

Endicott received an at-large bid in 2017 despite not being in the first set of Northeast rankings. The Northeast is Division III’s largest region so they ranked 11 teams in 2017. The Gulls were unranked in the first set and then only ranked 10th in the next three sets of rankings. The National Committee went deep into the list of Northeast candidates that year, including taking Keene State at No. 9.

UW-Oshkosh received an at-large bid in 2017 despite not being ranked in the first set of regional rankings. The Titans weren’t ranked in the second set of rankings either. They are the unicorn of the at-large selection process, earning an at-large bid despite finishing with double-digit losses.

Last season was unusual in that it had two teams that appeared in the first set of regional rankings, dropped out in the second and still earned an at-large bid less than two weeks later – North Central did that in the Central and LeTourneau did that in the South.

The cut-off point for being a strong at-large candidate also differs by region. The Atlantic Region has only had four at-large bids in the last five years and only one of those bid recipients was ranked lower than third in the first set of rankings.

Based on the historical data, here are the apparent cut-off points within each region.

• Atlantic: 4 at-large bids with an average ranking of 2.8; lowest bid recipient was 2017 New Jersey City (5th)

• Central: 15 bids with an average ranking of 4.4; lowest recipient was 2017 Oshkosh (unranked)

• East: 9 bids with an average ranking of 3.3; lowest recipient was 2016 New York U (unranked)

• Great Lakes: 14 bids with an average ranking of 3.6; lowest recipient was 2015 John Carroll (8th)

• Mid Atlantic: 13 bids with an average ranking of 3.8; lowest recipient was 2018 Franklin and Marshall (7th)

• Northeast: 27 bids with an average ranking of 4.3; lowest recipient was 2017 Endicott (unranked)

• South: 8 bids with an average ranking of 4.3; lowest recipient was 2018 LeTourneau (8th)

• West: 10 bids with an average ranking of 2.4; lowest recipient was 2018 St. Olaf (4th)

So in the West region it’s not just a matter of whether you’re ranked, but whether you’re ranked in the top four teams.

Turns out that dry run is a pretty good predictor of which teams aren’t going to cross the line.

Amherst alum: D3 should stay with D1 on championship weekend

Ben Kaplan played basketball at Amherst when the Lord Jeffs reached the 2008 national championship game in Salem. The next season he gave us an inside look at the Lord Jeffs’ 2009 NCAA tournament run. Four years later, Ben went to Atlanta to watch his alma mater play for the national championship. He describes how the Atlanta experience compared to Salem and gives his take on whether the Division III men’s title game should be regularly played at the Division I Final Four site.

Of all the possible confrontations at Saturday’s Final Four in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, I couldn’t have anticipated the first and only one I would witness. A fifty-ish man in maize, who made the trip with his twenty-ish son from New York, stuck a stubby finger in the face of a sixty-year-old man in purple who sat with his purple-clad daughter one row behind him. A vein pulsed in the man in maize’s forehead and spit flew with each obscenity. Some surrounding fans stepped in and the man in purple quietly stood and summoned security. Hey, you know what they say about Michigan and Amherst fans, right?

For the first time in its history, the NCAA celebrated 75 years of March Madness by crowning the Division II and III champions on the same weekend and in the same city as the D1 Final Four. If public sentiment has any say, it’s a change that the NCAA will make permanent. The D1 and D3 worlds pretend to exist on parallel planes when in fact they collide more often than you might expect. Bringing them together in one event is a fitting and well-deserved honor for the little guys.

The three most recent tournament coaching darlings, Butler’s Brad Stevens, VCU’s Shaka Smart, and Andy Enfield, formerly of Florida Gulf Coast, all played their college ball at Division III schools. Enfield made 92% of his free throws at Johns Hopkins to become the all-time Division III free-throw percentage leader, Smart set Kenyon’s career, season, and single-game assist records, and Stevens contributed for four years at DePauw.

The trio fit the popular D3 mold – scrappers who overcome size and athleticism deficiencies with intelligence, hard work, and often one special skill. D1 fans who dropped by the title game between Amherst College and University of Mary Hardin-Baylor probably expected the crisp passing and sharp shooting Amherst rode to the title, but they probably didn’t expect Amherst wing and Final Four Most Outstanding Player Allen Williamson to grab an offensive rebound on the block, take one dribble to gather himself, and rise up over a defender’s outstretched hand for a thunderous dunk. They probably didn’t expect Mary Hardin-Baylor star Thomas Orr, a lanky lefty who used a variety of crossovers and stepback moves en route to a team-high 24 points, to take off for a slam after a top of the key isolation move in the half court. And they definitely didn’t expect lumbering Amherst center Pete Kaasila to meet him at the rim and send the dunk attempt back. (OK so they called it a foul, but I not-so-objectively thought it was clean. Regardless, it was the second most impressive mid-air meeting in Atlanta called for a foul this weekend.)

Division III normally crowns its champion in Salem, Virginia, a town that hosts the D3 basketball and football championships. This year, the Elite Eight and Final Four were played in Salem two weeks prior to last Sunday’s title game. As a player at Amherst, I attended the 2008 Final Four. It was the school’s third trip to Salem in a row, and the previous year the team won their first national championship.

To get to Salem, we flew a chartered plane instead of our usual bus. A camera crew greeted us when we landed, instructing us to “act naturally” while they filmed. As we waited almost an hour for our coaches to pick up the rental cars, they interviewed a few players about the upcoming weekend. Instead of the usual motel or Howard Johnson, we stayed in a hotel with leather furniture and a fancy restaurant in the lobby. We dealt with never-ending TV timeouts for the first time all year, attended a banquet, and the starters spoke at official press conferences after the game. Little girls play “house,” and that weekend we played “D1 basketball.”

In Atlanta, this year’s Amherst team had a bus waiting for them at an airport and a police escort on each and every trip they made. When I ran into Amherst’s iconic coach, David Hixon, in the hotel lobby, he immediately told me about how thrilled the players were with the lengthy autograph sessions, media interviews, and TV footage shoots. The schedule was wonky, with a pair of two-week layoffs during the tournament, and the weekend was a minefield of distractions, but the players and coaches wouldn’t have had it any other way. For one weekend, they truly got their time on the big stage.

The weekend’s charms weren’t limited to the players. The Final Four hosts the National Association of Basketball Coaches clinics and conferences, which nearly every NCAA coach attends, so I had the pleasure of seeing and speaking to the Amherst graduate assistants from the past seven years who have now moved on to other schools. I sampled the Atlanta nightlife with alums who, myself included, probably wouldn’t have come had the game been in Salem. The D1 Final Four and accompanying activities, like the pop-a-shot games at Bracket Town or the free Ludacris concert at The Big Dance, provide more of an incentive for students and alums to make the trip to support their team. The academic toll of two long trips and a longer season may cause some educators to complain, but the two Amherst players I saw studying for an economics midterm next to the table of NCAA Merchandise in the hotel lobby seemed to manage the juggling act just fine. Half an hour of studying is a small price to pay for a weekend as a VIP at the Final Four.

The game itself took place at Phillips Arena instead of the Georgia Dome for the same reason that ping pong tournaments aren’t held on Centre Court at Wimbledon. National press stopped by to cover the game, and some wrote glowingly about the talent on the floor. They learned a well-kept secret, that the things like late growth spurts, injuries, and a desire for playing time that force bracket busters to attend mid-majors also contribute to low-D1 talents playing on the D3 level. One such talent, Amherst All-American Willy Workman, who had a hip injury in high school that kept him off the D1 radar, spoke at a reception honoring the players after their championship win. He said, “Playing at the D3 level, we don’t get a ton of support, so you guys are our everything. Thanks for being our parents, friends, fans, cooks, laundry-doers, and everything else we needed to get to this point.” Williamson, the Final Four MOP, talked to me about his desire to continue his playing career overseas, as more than a dozen alums in the past have done. “It’s getting a lot more competitive,” he told me, “so hopefully I’ll land somewhere.” To the media, a few Amherst players talked about how they always dreamed of playing in the NBA, and since that was out the window, winning a championship in an NBA arena was next-best thing.

Around 6,000 fans filed into the lower bowl of the Atlanta Hawks home while the upper bowl was curtained off, so the teams got the thrill of playing in a large arena without having it feel empty. At the Dome the previous night, screaming seas of maize, yellow, orange, and red dominated the stands, but at the D3 game the following afternoon, a few rowdy Amherst fans and a screaming Mary Hardin-Baylor student in a purple tutu holding an “Amherst Likes Nickelback” sign were the exception rather than the rule. Physicality and speed didn’t dominate the game as it did on the Division I level, but finesse, athleticism, and tremendous skill were still on display. On my road trip from Chicago to Atlanta, I marveled at the beauty of rolling green hills and the black structures and yellow lights of skylines. Both different, both majestic in their own way. I felt the same about the atmosphere and the on-court performances on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

Which brings me back to the confrontation during the Michigan and Syracuse game. The Amherst fan expected his 200-level seats to the Division I Final Four to provide respite from the rowdy student sections. After all, he’s from Amherst, where basketball games are best enjoyed with quiet amusement and occasional polite clapping, preferably with a book on hand. The Michigan fans, who called the players by first name and referred to the team as “we”, wanted to celebrate each basket with a jump, a fist pump, and a high-five. Speaking from personal experience, post-graduation D3 fanhood is more a source of quiet pride than loud and boastful cheers. When “we” used to play on the team and actually know each player by first name, the wild rowdiness seems to us, for whatever reason, a bit over the top. Not that I look down on it. Quite the contrary. I envy it. I wish Amherst results put me in a wild frenzy. I wish I could go to a bar in Chicago on Saturdays and cheer with friends as Amherst beats Middlebury in football. I love when my school wins, and I hate when they lose, but the lack of fanfare and smaller stage puts the game in a different perspective for us.

In the end, both men overreacted. The Amherst alum shouldn’t have grabbed the younger Michigan fan and nudged him down to his seat when he stood up to celebrate a Mitch McGary layup. The older Michigan fan shouldn’t have responded by pushing and swearing at the Amherst alum.

At the heart of that clash were two parents who didn’t want a once-in-a-lifetime experience with their kids at all compromised. The father and son decked out in maize, the father and daughter in Amherst sweaters, my father and me a few seats over, the two Michigan grad students who bought our tickets to Monday’s finals – we were all living out a weekend we would remember and laugh and talk about forever. Watching Amherst win was great, but sharing that experience with my old teammates, seeing the big hugs and bigger smiles on the court, and the tears of the new generation of team parents made it truly special.

That’s why this past weekend should be the beginning of a new tradition. Other Division II and III schools deserve this chance, and other alums should get to experience what I did. Between the overload of endorsements and allegations of athlete exploitation, the NCAA creates these unforgettable shared experiences between athletes and fans alike. Why not maximize them?

Who’s in the men’s tournament?

Here are the 42 conferences with automatic bids to the 2013 NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament and winners, when clinched. Each team’s seed in the conference tournament is noted in parentheses. Congratulations to Concordia-Texas, Fitchburg State, St. Vincent and Spalding on earning their first ever trip to the NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament.

For teams not in one of these 42 conferences, there is one bid set aside (Pool B). There are 19 at-large bids (Pool C) that make up the rest of the field.

Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference: Penn State-Behrend (3)
American Southwest Conference: Concordia, Tex. (West-2)
Capital Athletic Conference: St. Mary’s, Md. (1)
Centennial Conference: Dickinson (2)
City University of New York Athletic Conference: Staten Island (1)
College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin: North Central, Ill. (2)
Colonial States Athletic Conference: Cabrini (1)
Commonwealth Coast Conference: Curry (1)
Empire 8: Ithaca (2)
Great Northeast Athletic Conference: Albertus Magnus (2)
Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference: Rose-Hulman (1)
Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: Dubuque (3)
Landmark Conference: Catholic (1)
Liberty League: Hobart (1)
Little East Conference: Rhode Island College (1)
Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference: Fitchburg State (5)
Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association: Calvin (1)
Middle Atlantic Commonwealth: Alvernia (1)
Middle Atlantic Freedom: Delaware Valley (2)
Midwest Conference: St. Norbert (1)
Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: St. Thomas (1)
New England Collegiate Conference: Elms (1)
New England Small College Athletic Conference: Amherst (1)
New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference: WPI (1)
New Jersey Athletic Conference: Ramapo (1)
North Atlantic Conference: Husson (2)
North Coast Athletic Conference: Ohio Wesleyan (2)
North Eastern Athletic Conference: Morrisville State (1)
Northern Athletics Conference: Aurora (2)
Northwest Conference: Whitworth (1)
Ohio Athletic Conference: Marietta (2)
Old Dominion Athletic Conference: Randolph-Macon (3)
Presidents Athletic Conference: St. Vincent (1)
St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: Spalding (1)
Skyline Conference: SUNY-Purchase (2)
Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: Redlands (1)
Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference: Trinity, Tex. (1)
State University of New York Athletic Conference: Cortland State (1)
University Athletic Association: Washington U. (no tournament)
Upper Midwest Athletic Conference: Northwestern, Minn. (1)
USA South Athletic Conference: Christopher Newport (1)
Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: UW-Whitewater (2)

Who’s in the women’s tournament?

Here are the 43 teams with automatic bids to the 2013 NCAA Division III women’s basketball tournament. Each team’s seed in the conference tournament is noted in parentheses. Congratulations to Cornell, FDU-Florham, Huntingdon, Lancaster Bible, New Paltz State, St. Scholastica and Texas-Dallas on earning their first ever trip to the NCAA Division III women’s basketball tournament.

Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference: La Roche (1)
American Southwest Conference: Texas-Dallas (East-2)
Capital Athletic Conference: Marymount (1)
Centennial Conference: Gettysburg (1)
City University of New York Athletic Conference: Baruch (1)
College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin: Carthage (1)
Colonial States Athletic Conference: Cabrini (1)
Commonwealth Coast Conference: University of New England (1)
Empire 8: Ithaca (1)
Great Northeast Athletic Conference: Emmanuel (1)
Great South Athletic Conference: Huntingdon (1)
Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference: Hanover (3)
Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: Simpson (1)
Landmark Conference: Catholic (1)
Liberty League: St. Lawrence (2)
Little East Conference: Southern Maine (1)
Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference: Bridgewater State (1)
Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association: Hope (1)
Middle Atlantic Commonwealth: Lebanon Valley (3)
Middle Atlantic Freedom: FDU-Florham (1)
Midwest Conference: Cornell (1)
Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: St. Thomas (2)
New England Collegiate Conference: Regis (Mass.) (1)
New England Small College Athletic Conference: Amherst (2)
New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference: Babson (1)
New Jersey Athletic Conference: Montclair State (1)
North Atlantic Conference: Colby-Sawyer (2)
North Coast Athletic Conference: DePauw (1)
North Eastern Athletic Conference: Lancaster Bible (1)
Northern Athletics Conference: Wisconsin Lutheran (1)
Northwest Conference: Whitworth (2)
Ohio Athletic Conference: Ohio Northern (1)
Old Dominion Athletic Conference: Guilford (2)
Presidents Athletic Conference: Thomas More (1)
St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: Westminster, Mo. (1)
Skyline Conference: Farmingdale State (4)
Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: Cal Lutheran (1)
Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference: Trinity, Tex. (1)
State University of New York Athletic Conference: New Paltz State (1)
University Athletic Association: Emory (no tournament)
Upper Midwest Athletic Conference: St. Scholastica (4)
USA South Athletic Conference: Christopher Newport (2)
Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: UW-Stevens Point (3)

Who’s in the 2012 women’s tournament?

Sixty-four teams will participate in the 2012 Division III women’s basketball tournament. There are 43 automatic bids awarded to conference champions (Pool A), one for teams not in those 42 conferences (Pool B) and 20 at-large teams (Pool C).

Here are the teams that clinched the 43 automatic bids. The number in parentheses is the team’s seeding in their conference tournament. The NCAA bracket will be announced on Monday, February 27. You can read more about the tournament’s structure here.

Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference: La Roche (1)
American Southwest Conference: Concordia (Texas) (1-West)
Capital Athletic Conference: Mary Washington (1)
Centennial Conference: Muhlenberg (3)
City University of New York Athletic Conference: Baruch (2)
College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin: Illinois Wesleyan (1)
Colonial States Athletic Conference: Gwynedd-Mercy (1)
Commonwealth Coast Conference: Salve Regina (2)
Empire 8: Ithaca (1)
Great Northeast Athletic Conference: Emmanuel (1)
Great South Athletic Conference: Maryville (Tenn.) (1)
Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference: Franklin (1)
Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: Coe (2)
Landmark Conference: Catholic (3)
Liberty League: Vassar (3)
Little East Conference: Rhode Island College (1)
Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference: Bridgewater State (1)
Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association: Calvin (1)
Middle Atlantic Commonwealth: Lebanon Valley (1)
Middle Atlantic Freedom: Misericordia (2)
Midwest Conference: Monmouth (2)
Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: St. Thomas (1)
New England Collegiate Conference: Elms (2)
New England Small College Athletic Conference: Amherst (1)
New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference: Babson (1)
New Jersey Athletic Conference: William Paterson (1-North)
North Atlantic Conference: Castleton State (1)
North Coast Athletic Conference: DePauw (1)
North Eastern Athletic Conference: Keuka (2-North)
Northern Athletics Conference: Wisconsin Lutheran (1)
Northwest Conference: George Fox (1)
Ohio Athletic Conference: Mount Union (1)
Old Dominion Athletic Conference: Guilford (3)
Presidents Athletic Conference: Thomas More (1)
St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: Westminster (Mo.) (1)
Skyline Conference: Mount St. Mary (1)
Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: Cal Lutheran (4)
Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference: Centre (1-East)
State University of New York Athletic Conference: Oneonta State (3)
University Athletic Association: Chicago (No tournament)
Upper Midwest Athletic Conference: Martin Luther (1)
USA South Athletic Conference: Ferrum (1)
Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: UW-Stevens Point (1)