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May 18, 2012

A baseless decision: NCAA gives ballplayers the shaft

I’m not really a Maroons fan. I don’t think anyone roots for a DIII team the way one can root for a DI team. I grew up a California Golden Bear, rooting, crying, and cheering for my mother’s alma mater. I watched Cal baseball as they lost to Stanford, I mourned the loss of the Golden Bears’ seasons every year against USC. But when I chose to come to a DIII school, I knew things would be different. I didn’t expect to develop the same passion for the teams—and there was nothing wrong with that.

When I was in sixth grade, the Golden Bears’ football team lost out on what was a no-doubt trip to the Rose Bowl. They were the second-best team in the Pac-10. Typically, the best team in the Pac-10 goes to Pasadena, but since USC was more highly ranked and headed to a BCS bowl, it was only logical that Cal head to the Rose Bowl. On the night of the selection show, however, there was a shocker. Instead of choosing the team from the conference that practically has an automatic bid to the bowl, the committee chose the Texas Longhorns. I remember seeing the words on the television screen and immediately beginning to bawl. I didn’t understand how a group of people could have dashed my hopes and dreams so quickly. From that moment on, I have hated the BCS system for being so arbitrary and cruel. If coach Jeff Tedford had allowed quarterback Aaron Rodgers to run up the score in the Golden Bears’ final game of the season, instead of being kind to their lesser opponent, they probably would have made the Rose Bowl.

Now, here in Chicago, it happened again. When I first started covering the Maroons’ baseball season, I didn’t really care. I was much more interested in checking in on my Golden Bears. But as the season progressed, I began to find myself caring whether the team went on a winning streak or whether they dropped the second game of a doubleheader. I wasn’t quite sure what was happening—I didn’t know DIII teams could inspire passion, too—but I just went with it. So as I began to realize that a bid to the NCAA tournament was a legitimate possibility for this team, I got excited. The more I examined the records of the other teams, the more sure I was that they would make it. When I woke up on Monday morning and checked the tournament field, finding the South Siders to be notably absent, I got that same sinking feeling as I did when I saw the words “Texas Longhorns” instead of “California Golden Bears.” I didn’t cry this time.

It just doesn’t add up. The Maroons may not have started their season in any particularly impressive fashion, but the way they sustained momentum all year and were able to beat some good teams is admirable.

When I saw they hadn’t made the postseason, I really could not believe it. I thought of the three games they took from Wash U in a big weekend series in St. Louis. I thought of their final game, a convincing win over an admittedly weak DI opponent. I knew they weren’t the best in the region—that accolade belongs to Wash U—but I really thought they were the second best.

As I tried to piece together what had happened, I heard a few rationalizations that various members of the team had been provided with. Perhaps the most important place to start is to realize that Chicago was not eligible for a Pool A bid, as the UAA does not receive an automatic bid to the NCAA DIII tournament. This means they were left to be either a Pool B or C candidate.

There were only two Pool B bids given, and both seem to have been awarded to teams that were independent of an automatic bid conference, but clearly deserving. For instance, I would not argue for a second against Wash U’s receiving one of the Pool B bids. When the final regional rankings came out, Chicago was second to the Bears in the Central region.

Left in the big group of Pool C candidates, the Maroons seemed likely to get a bid. The night the bids were to be announced, D3baseball.com listed Chicago in the top 7 teams that would very likely secure Pool C bids. In the projections, they were listed as a team that didn’t even generate a discussion, they were so much of a sure shot.

So, why was Chicago left out even though they seemed like a shoo-in a few hours before the announcement?

One of the first things I thought logical to investigate was strength of schedule. Maybe Chicago’s rigorous academic demands make it difficult to craft a strong schedule. I figured maybe the Maroons’ wins had been considered unimpressive.

This, however, is simply not true. According to D3Baseball.com’s rankings, Chicago had the ninth-strongest schedule out of a list of 371 DIII teams. A weak schedule was clearly not their undoing.

Perhaps, then, it was precisely this difficult schedule that hurt the Maroons. By playing the tougher teams in their region, they were not able to accumulate an outstanding regional record. They went 19–11 in their region, while Wash U went 25–8, albeit playing a weaker schedule. Illinois Wesleyan, a team that some team members cited as a bit of a surprise entry into the tournament, went 25–14 in the region, but with a schedule weaker than Wash U’s. It appears that Chicago’s inability to reach the 20-win mark within their region may have hurt them.

This idea that the Maroons did not have enough wins in their region is a logical enough explanation for their being considered lesser by the committee. But I don’t think it is enough. This system seems as messed up as the BCS.

I think strength of schedule is a much more accurate factor in judging a team’s abilities than wins in their region. Or, at least, the two need to be considered together. If Chicago had played weaker teams in the region, they wouldn’t have had the ninth-toughest schedule, but they probably would have reached 20 wins. It seems like the NCAA is rewarding Wash U for crafting an easier schedule. Regional wins should not be considered as more important than strength of schedule.

Of course, I don’t even know if this was the exact thought process on the minds of those who made the decision. But it is the only evidence I can find for why this deserving team was left out.

It doesn’t seem fair to make this team wait until next year to show the NCAA just how wrong they were to leave Chicago out of the postseason. And, no matter how impressive their season is next year, there seems to be no guarantee that they won’t get passed over yet again.

I think it might be time for Chicago to consider joining a conference that has an automatic bid to the tournament. Even if they can’t necessarily compete at the level to win one of those conferences, membership would add to their respectability. Then, when the time comes for the powers that be to choose teams for the tournament, Chicago would be more of a household name.

The fact that I even had to propose that—joining a conference simply to make the team more well-known—shows just how flawed this system is. The NCAA needs to develop a more equal way to measure teams against each other.

This ridiculously subjective selection process needs to be changed. The Maroons were its victims this year, and could be again.

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