Putting a Tiger in the NCAC’s tank

DePauw announced that it will leave the SCAC and join the NCAC for basketball effective in the 2011-2012 season. It’s still a full season away, but adding the Tigers to NCAC men’s basketball could have a very different impact than adding the Tigers to NCAC women’s basketball.

In men’s basketball, DePauw brings depth to a conference that has been incredibly top heavy. Wooster (7) and Wittenberg (3) have won the last 10 regular season titles and all but one NCAC tournament title. Wooster’s dominance is particularly striking. The Scots are 46-51 against Wittenberg (.474) all time and 688-256 against everyone else (.729). Six NCAC teams – everyone but Wittenberg, Ohio Wesleyan and Wabash – haven’t beaten Wabash in at least 10 seasons.

Maybe DePauw won’t challenge Wooster for the title every year, but it’s hard to imagine the Tigers going 0-for-a-decade against the Scots. DePauw has averaged just under 20 wins over the last four seasons and made consecutive NCAA tournament appearances in 2006 and 2007. And I’ve seen the DePauw’s Neal Fieldhouse when it’s full and loud for a basketball game. A road game against DePauw in mid-February will be a much better gauge of how ready Wooster and other NCAC title contenders are for the NCAA tournament than road games at Earlham who is moving from the NCAC to the HCAC.

On the women’s side, the story will be different, at least in the short term. On a lot of nights, adding DePauw to the NCAC may have the same impact as adding a steamroller to a bumper car rally. The Tigers have won at least 19 games every season since 1995. They have made the NCAA tournament in eight of the last nine years with a national championship (2007) and another Final Four appearance (2002) along the way. Since Ohio Wesleyan reached the 2001 Final Four, the NCAC representative has gone 6-9 in the NCAA tournament and hasn’t survived the first weekend since 2004. DePauw has gone 17-7 over that same period and twice beaten the NCAC rep (Denison both times).

There’s a chance that DePauw does to the NCAC women’s field what Wooster has done to the NCAC men’s field. That would be a shame for all involved. Teams who survive tough conferences in the regular season are better prepared to make deep runs in the postseason. So DePauw will have to continue its aggressive non-conference scheduling since there will be a lot of nights where the Tigers aren’t challenged by NCAC opponents, at least in the short term. But there’s also a chance that DePauw will give the conference a gold standard toward which the other programs can aspire, elevating the whole conference’s quality of play. DePauw gives teams like Denison and Wittenberg, who have played well in conference, a better gauge of what it takes to succeed in the NCAA tournament. As one NCAC message board maven put it, hopefully a rising tide lifts all boats.