On the D3 Tournament Field

So, now that everything’s cooled off a bit, let’s take a look at the selection committees’ work before we start getting excited for these regionals to kick off. I’ll discuss the at-large decisions, travel arrangements, and tournament format as a Q&A. If there are any questions/issues I don’t address that you’d like me to, let me know, and I’ll add to the post. None of what I say is an endorsement of the committee’s decisions, I’m just trying to explain them.

Why didn’t my team get in?

Your beef here is with the system, not the selection committee.  That doesn’t mean you can’t make a case that your team’s resume was better than a team that got in, but the committee’s decisions were based on long-used criteria that were all but set heading into the final week.  The biggest thing at play here is the regional rankings.  (See below for a shot of the most recent one, courtesy of NCAA.com.)  Settling at-large bids means checking these final rankings to see if any major changes have taken place in the final weekend, then comparing the top teams from around the country to see who gets in. Keep in mind, after 40 autobids and 2 Pool B bids (for teams who don’t play in conferences eligible for an autobid, like Brandeis in the UAA) are taken, there are just 14 spots left for the 56-team tournament. It takes an elite resume to get an at-large bid in Division III.

RegRankingsFinal2015

This ranking is the basis for the committee’s decisions. It was released before the final weekend of conference tournaments, and in New England, these probably didn’t change much. Only three tournaments were left– the Little East, NESCAC, and NECC– and only the first two of those had at-large implications. Amherst’s 4-1 showing at the NESCACs helped, but not enough to move past Wesleyan or USM. UMB’s 1-2 showing at the LECs hurt, but 5, 6, and 7 had already wrapped up their own tournaments, and #8 UMD did just a bit better (2-2) at the same tournament.

So more or less, these final regional rankings are what the committee was looking at when deciding who got in from New England. With USM and Wesleyan AQ’g, Amherst is the top candidate. They’re compared to the top candidates from D3’s seven other regions, and if they get pulled off the board, it’s UMass Boston’s turn for consideration. If UMB gets in, it moves down to the next non-AQer, Worcester State, and so on.

The big question, of course, is how’d we arrive at this final ranking? The committee has put out three of these, dating back to late April. As you’d expect, there’s been some movement since the first edition, the second edition, and the final one you see above.

Wesleyan was the biggest winner over those three weeks, jumping from #5 to #2, largely by virtue of their regular-season sweep of Amherst (#2 in the first ranking). UMass Boston made a big leap, as well, going from unranked in the first two to #4 in the region thanks to an 8-1 run between the first poll and last poll. Wins over Endicott, Saint Joseph’s, and Rhode Island College (all ranked in the first poll) helped them a lot. Salem State and Worcester State, unranked in the first two, leaped up to #5 and #6, respectively, by virtue of their MASCAC tournament runs.

The biggest losers? Endicott got bumped out of the poll from being #4 in week two after a 1-2 showing in the CCC Tournament. Saint Joseph’s and Wheaton both slid several spots after failing to win their tournaments and Rhode Island College and Tufts dropped out entirely.

As you can see, this year’s regional rankings were insanely volatile. 2-0 and 5-4 losses to lower-seeded teams in the CCCT saw Endicott drop from prime at-large position out of the ranking entirely. Salem and Worcester leaped up from outside consideration to the edge of at-large contention thanks solely to their own conference tournament showings. Selection committees always love to talk about how one weekend of a conference tournament doesn’t matter, and it’s about your full body of work, and we would never penalize you for one bad day in May, etc., etc., etc. This year, however, that couldn’t have been farther from the case. If you lost a close game or two in your tournament, there was nothing your regular-season resume could do to help.

Why all the volatility? It feels like heading into the last couple weeks, the committee saw most teams in the region as very closely bunched. The top two of Southern Maine and Wesleyan had done plenty to distinguish themselves, but after that, the committee didn’t see much of a gap between the region’s 3rd-best and 14th-best teams, that is, everyone else who appeared in a regional ranking (Amherst, Endicott, Framingham State, MIT, Rhode Island College, Saint Joseph’s, Salem State, Tufts, UMass Dartmouth, Wheaton, and Worcester State). Everyone came from a mid-tier or better conference, most played a tough schedule, and pretty much all ended up with a win total in the mid-20s and loss total in the low teens. In a perfect world, I don’t think the committee wanted the conference tournaments to count so much, but they felt they didn’t have much else to go on to separate these teams. Thus Endicott’s precipitous drop, Salem and Worcester’s meteoric rises, and the movement everywhere else.

As far as how they sorted things out to come up with the final ranking, it came down to your record, what opponents you played, what teams those opponents played, and how you did against regionally ranked opponents (that is, the 10 in the final New England ranking, plus Southern trip opponents ranked in other regions). So let’s take the 11 teams hunting for at-large bids (the 12 above taking out MIT and Salem, who won autobids, and putting in ECSU, who made a run to the LEC title game), take a look at that data, and see if the regional rankings make any more sense. Keep in mind this is the final, post-conference tournament data. It’s not precisely what the committee used to get to that May 7 regional ranking, but it’s what they were looking at when making selections.

regrnkdata15

So let’s work from the bottom. Tufts and Rhode Island College are left out because of poor strength of schedule. Anything outside the top 100 here is going to make it virtually impossible to get an at-large, and difficult to get into the regional rankings in a region as deep as New England. For EndicottEastern Connecticut, and Framingham State, it’s a matter of a few too many losses. You certainly have to appreciate the difficulty of the schedules they’ve played (more than the committee did, in my opinion). For Framingham to be at #70 nationally as a MASCAC school is incredible. They played elite teams in Florida and plenty of New England’s best back north. Endicott managed to crack the national top 25 and play 17 regionally ranked opponents, despite having no regionally ranked teams in the CCC. And ECSU’s slate gave new meaning to the word gauntlet. There’s a decent chance you’ll be able to find half the CWS field on it. But in D3, a loss total that climbs into the high teens is usually a death sentence, and each of these teams had it.

Moving up, Saint Joseph’s GNAC-fueled SOS knocks it out of the top-100 and out of contention for a top-5 regional spot, but a win over top-ranked USM and a strong recovery from a tough start down south keep them in the rankings. Worcester State and Wheaton both had good showings against regionally ranked competition (6 and 5 wins apiece), but that #77 SOS is a little too low to put them into at-large range in the top half of the rankings.

Next up is an interesting comparison between UMass Dartmouth and UMass Boston. The two teams have identical SOS numbers, both sitting at an excellent #36 nationally. After that, the Corsairs have a slightly better win percentage and did much better against regionally ranked competition (6-6 to UMB’s 4-10), yet they end up four slots behind the #4 Beacons at #8. Looking at their resumes, the three things I can think of to explain that are their Florida trips (UMD played a great schedule, but UMB’s included national powers Heidelberg, Baldwin Wallace, Marietta, Wooster, and Cortland), the Beacons’ win over Cortland (only three other teams managed one of those this year), and their run-ins (UMD went 6-4 between the first and last rankings, UMB 8-1).

That leaves us with Amherst, who ended up as the region’s only at-large bid. (Let me first say I think the Jeffs deserve this, without question. I saw them sweep Williams this year, and while it may not be the best team Brian Hamm’s had, they’re an extremely talented bunch, and they’ll make noise in the tournament.) That said, Amherst’s 2-7 mark against regionally ranked opponents isn’t good. In fact, it’s tied with RIC for the worst of any team in consideration here. D3Baseball kept them out of their projection because of it. So why’d Amherst make the field?

I can think of four things, listed in descending order of importance. First, and most significant by some distance, is the Jeffs’ strength of schedule. Remarkably, despite playing just the nine games against regionally ranked opponents, they ended up with the #26 SOS in D3. (Endicott, by contrast, had to play 17 regionally ranked opponents to get to #24.) Basically, the Jeffs got a huge push into the tournament field from opponents that had good records, but weren’t quite good enough to crack regional rankings. These were the Ripons, Western New Englands, St. Norberts, William Patersons, Framinghams, Endicotts, Eastern Connecticuts, and Castletons of the world. Teams that won 20 games, but had just a few too many warts to fall into that regionally ranked wins column. Since opponents’ opponents’ win percentage counts a bit towards your SOS number, it also helped that teams like Framingham, Endicott, and ECSU played brutal schedules.

Other, smaller considerations may have included: secondly, the fact that 5 of those regionally ranked losses came against Wesleyan, one of the best teams in the region, and thirdly, a 3-2 showing in NESCACs that saw them grab a win over Wesleyan and lose the title in extras. Fourthly (and this is purely speculation) the Jeffs’ status as New Englanders may well have helped them. As much justified frustration as many New England teams have with the committee, I’ve gotta think it seemed weird to them that a region with as good a track record and as many strong programs as ours wouldn’t get an at-large into the tournament. I obviously can’t evidence this at all, but I wonder if the thought entered the committee’s minds.

On a side note, compiling the W-L totals versus regionally ranked teams really made me appreciate how much the bad winter hurt the region. Schools like Saint Joe’s, Wheaton, and ECSU had records north of .500 against teams ranked in New England. But for them and many other teams, a 1-4 or 0-3 type of showing against other regions’ best down South did them in. History tells us that New England’s top teams are more likely to come out with 4-1 and 3-0 showings against those clubs, and it seems the brutal winter is the biggest reason behind this. D1 teams might get grumpy when they have to cancel games, but many of them have the indoor facilities to get quality practice time in, or the athletic budgets to fly further south to get games in. Most D3 programs have neither, and in 2015, that really hurt.

Why’s a team from New Jersey crashing the New England Regional?

That team, of course, is Ramapo. They’re an NJAC team from a bit northwest of NYC, and they went 28-14 (12-6 NJAC) in a tough conference against the 59th ranked schedule to get their at-large and the #3 seed in Harwich. The committee’s sending them here because they think there are too many teams in New York and the Mid-Atlantic deserving of top-three seeds, and too few of those teams in New England. In other words, Ramapo’s too good to be a #4 or #5 in Auburn or York, so they send them to Harwich, where Salem and MIT aren’t good enough to be a #3, according to the committee. In the past, the committee hasn’t been so hot about sending teams outside their regions, but they’ve become more willing recently. Speaking of which…

Why’s Amherst playing in New York?

This isn’t the first time Amherst has played in the New York Regional. (In fact, they’re doing so for the third straight year.) The biggest reason is that the NESCAC generally gets more than one team in (this year was no exception), and the committee likes to keep teams from the same conference out of the same regional. Sometimes they bend this rule– LEC mates ECSU and USM both played in New England last year– but the committee also sent Amherst to New York and Wesleyan to Pennsylvania last year to keep them from facing Tufts on Cape Cod. You might have thought Amherst would slot in well as the #3 in Harwich behind USM and Wesleyan, just as they did in the regional rankings. But, as I wrote above, it seems the committee thinks there’s a big gap between the top two and the rest of New England, so the Lord Jeffs will be playing in New York as the #5.

Why’s Mitchell driving an extra four hours to play in Pennsylvania?

Weirder than Amherst’s travel orders, but still explicable. When I was hearing at first that Mitchell and Ramapo were both #5’s, it made no sense whatsoever, but now we know Ramapo’s a #3. The logic here is just the flip side of the reasoning that brought the Roadrunners to Harwich. Just as the committee felt there weren’t enough top-three-seed teams in New England, it felt there were too many bottom-five-seed teams. They could’ve sent Castleton to New York again to make room on Cape Cod, but there likely wasn’t room in Auburn for the Spartans to get as high a seed as they deserve. Instead, they sent Mitchell to the Mid-Atlantic as a #5 seed. As a Connecticut school, the Mariners were closer to Pennsylvania than Salem or MIT, and more deserving of a #5 than Curry or Suffolk. Let’s just hope they have an air-conditioned bus.

What determined the seeds for Harwich?

The regional rankings, mostly. Skipping over Ramapo, the USM-Wesleyan-Salem-MIT ordering is a perfect reflection of the final top 10. After that, Castleton’s win over Tufts and their dominant showing in the NAC was enough to overcome a weak SOS. Curry‘s solid regular-season showing in a good CCC was enough to put it ahead of sub-.500 Suffolk.

Why’s the tournament have so few at-large bids? Why 56 teams and not 64?

That’s a good question. An expanded tournament likely sees UMass Boston, and maybe another New England team like Worcester, UMD, Saint Joe’s, or Wheaton, into this year’s field. And that’s in a down year for New England. In a good year, a bigger field would open up a lot of possibilities. The NCAA’s decision for a 56-team field comes down to a rule that states 1 in 6.5 Division III teams (or 15.3%) should qualify for the postseason. Why 1 in 6.5? No one knows. Supporters say it keeps the field competitive and makes conference tournaments more meaningful, detractors say it keeps deserving teams out. It certainly doesn’t apply to Division I, where better than 20% make the tournament, or to college football, where bowl eligibility is handed out like candy on Halloween.

Will expansion happen? Possibly. D3 baseball currently has 14.7% of teams making the tournament, lower than the recommended 14.7%, so a few more new programs to go along with the current 380 could see a couple more bids added. But because of D3’s geographical imbalance, a larger tournament means the NCAA paying for more northeastern teams to fly or bus to distant regionals, and that’s not something the NCAA wants to do.

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