Happy new season!

Last night eager Americans celebrated the beginning of a new Division III basketball season by dropping a ball covered with electric lights, eating lots of finger foods and celebrating with Dick Clark. Okay, maybe I’m slightly off on my holiday celebrations. We actually toss the ball up to start play, there are no lights on it and Dick Clark is not involved (though Dickinson and Clark may be).

And we actually started the basketball season on Saturday, November 15th, well before the calendar flipped over to 2009. But if you were busy with the holidays, college football or putting snow chains on the car, maybe you’re just getting into the 2008 – 2009 season. If that’s the case, here are nine story lines to follow – one for each region with a bonus – for men’s Division III hoops in 2009.

No. 1 – Northeast: Is Amherst overrated or underrated?

The Lord Jeffs finished second in the nation last year, are one year removed from a national championship and are undefeated this season. And yet there’s a chance they won’t get a single number 1 vote in the next Top 25 poll. That’s because the Lord Jeffs only returned one starter (Brian Baskauskas) from last year’s squad. Amherst hasn’t lost yet, but did have close calls against Emmanuel (2-7) and Skidmore (5-3). Despite the history of success, questions about the Lord Jeffs may linger. With Brandeis and Williams unranked, Amherst only has one opponent currently receiving Top 25 votes, Middlebury, and they won’t play each other until the regular season finale.

No. 2 – East: How long can Ithaca stay unbeaten?

At No. 17 Ithaca has achieved its highest ranking in the eight-plus years of our Top 25. The Bombers weren’t completely off the radar to start the season. Empire 8 coaches tabbed them as the conference’s preseason favorite. They’ve already won at Rochester and on the long, snowy road trip to St. Lawrence. Around the Nation talked with Coach Mullins and Company about Ithaca’s best start since 1941. Could the Bombers duplicate conference foe St. John Fisher’s 2005 accomplishment with an undefeated regular season?

No. 3 – Atlantic: Will more than one NJAC team make the NCAA tournament?

The NJAC hasn’t put more than one team in the tournament since Montclair State and Ramapo made the field in 2003. New Jersey City and Ramapo made the tournament in 2005 but the Gothic Knights were in Pool B. Conference play usually leaves even the better NJAC teams with a couple loses, but those teams also haven’t rolled up the impressive regional winning percentage needed to secure an at-large bid. This year No. 14 Richard Stockton and William Paterson have one regional loss each and only play each other once in the regular season.

No. 4 – Mid-Atlantic: Will No. 25 DeSales finally make the NCAA tournament?

Year after year the Bulldogs have been tantalizing close to making the NCAA tournament only to miss it in heart-breaking fashion. Last year they had 19 wins but lost to King’s in the MAC-Freedom championship. They had 20 wins but lost to King’s in the title game in 2005. They missed the tournament with 22 wins in 2004 and were conference runners-up again in 2003. This year’s edition is led by Darnell Braswell (16.5 ppg) and Brian Hunter, a transfer from Division I Lehigh. DeSales is undefeated with nine wins to start the year. But last year Elizabethtown started 10-0, mashed DeSales in a January match up and didn’t even make its conference tournament.

No. 5 – South: Which slow-starting preseason favorite will have the biggest turnaround?

If this question asked for the “fastest” turnaround, Randolph-Macon would have already won that honor. The preseason favorite in the ODAC started 1-3 before ripping off six straight victories, including the 75-63 win over No. 13 Ursinus. Two of the Tigers’ three loses are out of region but they still have plenty of competition among teams needing a turn around. Preseason No. 10 Mary-Hardin Baylor lost its first three games but got a nice win over No. 6 UW-Whitewater to move back to .500. You can even throw Maryville (Tenn.) in the mix as the Scots are 4-6 after last night’s loss at No. 18 Centre. All those loses are in region and the Scots are battling with several teams they don’t play, like Chapman and the Landmark members, to secure a bid through Pool B.

No. 6 – Great Lakes: Will we really have a post-season in which Wooster, Wittenberg, Hope and Calvin aren’t featured prominently?

A combination of youth, injuries and a relative drop off in Wittenberg’s success have left these four teams just 20-19 to start the year. Hope is still a question mark since the Flying Dutchmen have only played two Division III opponents (loses to Wheaton (Ill.) and Carthage). It’s not unreasonable to think that even these storied teams need to reload. But it would be strange not to see at least one of them advance far into the tournament. At least one has reached the regional finals every year since 2002. They have combined for 17 appearances in the last 6 tournaments.

No. 7 – Midwest: How many CCIW teams will make the NCAA tournament?

The CCIW has three teams in the Top 10 (Wheaton, Elmhurst and Augustana), four in the Top 20 (add Illinois Wesleyan) and a fifth that is unranked but undefeated (Millikin). Those five teams have four regional loses combined but soon head into grueling (for them) and entertaining (for us) conference play. The rest of the CCIW is a combined 13 games over .500 so there are no assured victories. Since only four teams make the CCIW tournament, there will be a lot on the line every game.

No. 8 – West: Who is more likely to secure home court advantage on the road to Salem – UW-Platteville, St. Thomas or Buena Vista?

This question isn’t about winning the conference or making the playoffs. It’s about rolling up enough wins and having the logistical advantage that factor into host site selections. I’m assuming geography and budget restrictions keep the NWC champion out of this conversation. UW-Platteville has the toughest hill to climb given the WIAC’s history of bruising play. Buena Vista has a regional loss but will be the prohibitive favorite to win the IIAC. Ditto for St. Thomas in the MIAC, minus the regional loss. And maybe the geographically isolated SCIAC champion could host the first and second rounds if the Conference puts two in the tournament and Chapman grabs a Pool B bid.

No. 9 – National: Are pollsters too focused on the CCIW and WIAC?

Seven teams in the Top 25 are from those two conferences. That’s a lot but not entirely unusual. Six teams from the CCIW and WIAC were ranked in the Top 25 at this point in 2007 and 2008. Maybe the voters are hedging their bets by picking multiple teams and figuring at least one will advance deep in the tournament. The CCIW and WIAC actually haven’t had an inordinate number of Final Four appearances with three each. That’s not bad but it isn’t more than the MIAA, NESCAC, NCAC, OAC, ODAC and UAA. The CCIW and WIAC sometimes meet in the tournament and cancel each other out, but not always. Last year the representatives were eliminated by teams from the MIAA (Hope), IIAC (Buena Vista and Loras) and UAA (Wash U.). In 2007 they were done in by the UAA (Wash U.) and MWC (Carroll). So are the voters (including me) missing the boat by putting so many in the Top 25?

Feel free to comment on these or any other story lines and happy new season!

7 thoughts on “Happy new season!

  1. Gordon, regarding the question of whether too many CCIW and WIAC teams are ranked, I don’t really know the answer. It’s still too early and I feel like we don’t have enough information on individual teams and the national picture quite yet.

    Regarding the following statement you made…

    “The CCIW and WIAC actually haven’t had an inordinate number of Final Four appearances with three each. That’s not bad but it isn’t more than the MIAA, NESCAC, NCAC, OAC, ODAC and UAA.”

    I do not see how this is relevant to the discussion of whether or not there are too many CCIW and WIAC teams ranked. There is no question the *top 1 or 2* teams in the MIAA, NESCAC, NCAC, OAC, ODAC, and UAA (and other leagues) have been as good or better than the *top* teams from the CCIW and WIAC most seasons this decade. Great Hope & Calvin teams – or Wittenberg and Wooster, or Amherst & Williams squads, etc – have without question been as good or better than the Augustana’s, Illinois Wesleyan’s, Wheaton’s, etc. So those leagues producing as many or more Final Four teams is not really a surprise.

    But in the CCIW and WIAC (and in the UAA in recent years, and in the OAC until the last few years) there are often *3-4* teams at the top that are very close. For example, in the CCIW right now, you could make a case for 3 teams being the “favorite” heading into league play right now – 3-time defending champion Augustana returned all but one player from last year’s team (that took Wash U to overtime in the tournament), Wheaton, an Elite 8 team last year, is led by one of the best players in D3 and is balanced and experienced, and Elmhurst has two All-American candidates and just beat defending national champion Wash U. Then you have a 4th team, IWU, that is loaded with young talent and went 3-0 vs Wheaton last year, and finished second in the CCIW (and played in the conf tournament title game)…a team that is not as good as the other 3, but probably a Top 25 team.

    Another example is 2005-06, when the CCIW had 4 teams that were as even as it gets – if you looked back at the games played between Augustana, Elmhurst, North Central, and IWU, you’d have a hard time figuring out which was the best team – almost every game played between the 4 teams went to the final seconds. Augustana won the CCIW regular season title…North Central won the conference tournament…and IWU went to the Final Four. (And Elmhurst beat all 3 teams during the year.)

    In seasons like 2008-09 and 2005-06, the *best* CCIW team is not typically better than the *best* from the MIAA, NCAC, ODAC, and others (again, many years those teams are better). But that really should not have anything to do with evaluating *how many* CCIW teams deserve to be ranked.

    The CCIW and WIAC are consistently top leagues because of their *depth*, and often these leagues have 3-4 teams that are Top 25 caliber. I think individual team resumes bear that out at the end of the year. I can’t speak for the WIAC because I have not seen those teams play the last couple years, but I’m confident the CCIW has 3 Top-15 caliber teams this year in Augustana, Wheaton, and Elmhurst, and a 4th, IWU, that belongs somewhere in the 18-22 range.

    Again, we need more information to be sure though and conference play will help us sort it out.

  2. Titan Q-

    First let me say you made my day by reading this post and responding. I never know if anyone actually looks at these posts. Your response is well thought out and interesting, as usual.

    The observation that the CCIW and WIAC haven’t put an inordinate number of teams in the Final Four is in response to my theory that voters place lots of teams from those conferences on their ballot because they figure, whoever the top team in the country is, it’s probably one of them, whichever emerges from the regular season. Another voter (not from the Midwest or West) made that statement to me explicitly a couple years ago after watching a couple CCIW teams. And in a less direct way, it certainly influences my ballot.

    Your point about the conference’s depth is directly on point. As good as the best teams have been from the MIAA, NCAC or ODAC, it’s hard to justify ranking more than one or two of those teams in most years. That’s what the rankings are – not just the best team in the country, but the Top 25. That’s why my last ballot has all seven teams from these two conferences on it.

    If it sounds like I’m arguing both sides, that’s because I am. Part of the idea of the post was to generate conversation by raising interesting, debatable questions. And the question whether the WIAC and CCIW are overrated or appropriately lauded usually stirs up interesting responses.

  3. I think the better question is, “Are the CCIW and WIAC teams rated too high?”

    #1 UW-Platteville
    #2 Wheaton
    #5 UW-Stevens Point
    #6 UW-Whitewater
    #7 Elmhurst
    #9 Augustana
    #16 Illinois Wesleyan

    I’m very confident that at least 6 of these 7 teams are Top 25-worthy. Maybe all 7. I doubt very much, though, that 6 should be in the top 9 of the poll. The way the season has played out though, that is just how it has shaken up at this point.

    – Had Buena Vista not lost @ Gustavus Adolphus, they’d be way up there.

    – How do you put Amherst any higher with that awful schedule they play?

    – Do we know enough about Elms to rate them much higher?

    – Capital would be much higher without the loss to Wilmington.

    I’m not comfortable with the # of CCIW/WIAC teams in the Top 9, but I’m also not sure who should be up there.

  4. By the way, I always read your stuff and you do a great job. Thanks for all the time you put in here.

  5. Thanks for the blog to start the “new season”.

    The geographic isolation that we have in the southwest makes it futile to anticipate Top 25 votes. (The take-home from this week’s tourney action is “Don’t come south to the UMHB tourney!”, as UW-Whitewater has fallen, just like VWC fell in 2006-07.)


    Trinity made a great run at UW-Stevens Point in 2005, and seems to bring the spotlight here on occasion. Coach Cunningham does get some love, which we greatly appreciate.

    If we are relying on Sweet 16 and Final Four performance as a rough proxy for perennial conference strength and Top 25 balloting, then I want some background information as to the records in the Sweet 16 of teams that were bussed (less than 500 miles) and those teams that were flown (greater than 500 miles) for the past 5-7 years. Only the UAA and the SCAC has any flying experience in conference play. There may be a geographic isolation factor that is not being adequately weighted in the balloting. (I am sure that the NWC and SCIAC fans feel the same way.)

    Keep up the good work! Your blogs are thought-provoking.

  6. FWIW, here is a list of the Final Four teams from the “Salem Era” (13 seasons from 1995-96 through 2007-08):

    Amherst 4 (2004, 2006, 2007, 2008) – NESCAC
    Illinois Wesleyan 4 (1996, 1997, 2001, 2006) – CCIW
    Williams 4 (1997, 1998, 2003, 2004) – NESCAC
    Hope 3 (1996, 1998, 2008) – MIAA
    Calvin 2 (2000, 2005) – MIAA
    Franklin & Marshall 2 (1996, 2000) – Centennial
    Hampden-Sydney 2 (1999, 2003) – ODAC
    Rochester 2 (2002, 2005) – UAA
    UW-Platteville 2 (1998, 1999) – WIAC
    UW-Stevens Point 2 (2004, 2005) – WIAC
    Virginia Wesleyan 2 (2006, 2006) – ODAC
    Washington U. 2 (2007, 2008) – UAA
    William Paterson 2 (1999, 2001) – NJAC
    Wooster 2 (2003, 2007) – NCAC
    Alvernia 1 (1997) – MACF
    Carthage 1 (2002) – CCIW
    Catholic 1 (2001) – LAND
    Connecticut College 1 (1999) – NESCAC
    Elizabethtown 1 (2002) – MACC
    Gustavus Adolphus 1 (2003) – MIAC
    John Carroll 1 (2004) – OAC
    Nebraska Wesleyan 1 (1997) – ind
    Ohio Northern 1 (2001) – OAC
    Otterbein 1 (2002) – OAC
    Rowan 1 (1996) – NJAC
    Salem St 1 (2000) – MASCAC
    Ursinus 1 (2008) – Centennial
    UW-Eau Claire 1 (2000) – WIAC
    Wilkes 1 (1997) – MACF
    Wittenberg 1 (2006) – NCAC
    York (Pa) 1 (2005) – CAC

    Total appearances by conference (1995-96 through 2007-08):

    NESCAC – 8
    CCIW – 5
    WIAC – 5
    MIAA – 5
    ODAC 4
    UAA – 4
    Centennial – 3
    NCAC – 3
    NJAC – 3
    OAC – 3
    MACF – 2
    CAC – 1
    LAND – 1
    MACC – 1
    MACF – 1
    MASCAC – 1
    MIAC – 1
    Ind – 1

    I’m posting just as an FYI for the discussion. For two reasons, I don’t think this is a good indication of conference strength:

    1) As I posted above, conference strength is measured more by depth than by quality at the top.

    2) Because of the way the D3 bracket is constructed, the road to Salem is not really a level playing field. Powers from the Midwest, West, and Great Lakes have to go through a bunch of other powers…isolated conferences (Texas schools, SCIAC, etc) get terrible draws and lots of travel…while the NESCAC teams get a relatively easy draw most years.

  7. Thanks for compiling this, Q.

    I never realized Nebraska Wesleyan made the Final Four. My first season following Division III was 1999.

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