Last year, I was pretty charitable to the D3 Selection Committee. I thought deserving teams were left at home, but more as a function of the field being too small than the committee picking the wrong teams to fill it. This year, I’m not so sure. Let’s dig in.
Setting the Stage
In Division III, almost three-quarters of the tournament berths are spoken for prior to Selection Sunday. Part of the reason is the glut of autobids (almost ten more than in D1) and part is the comparatively small field (56 bids to D1’s 64, despite the fact that D3 has significantly more teams). After you subtract the 40 autobids and the two reserved for teams from non-autobid leagues, there are just 14 at-large bids available. Even in a scenario where the committee nailed the at-large selections, lots of deserving teams would be left at home.
This year, eight New England teams qualified automatically via their conference tournaments. You’ll be able to read more about Eastern Connecticut, Tufts, Wheaton, Salve Regina, Suffolk, Salem State, Mitchell, and Castleton in our tournament preview later this week. For now, we’ll focus on the clubs that entered Selection Sunday in the hunt for an at-large bid.
The biggest clue to the committee’s thinking is the final regional rankings, released just before the final round of conference tournaments. Here’s this year’s edition.
As you read above, #2 Wheaton, #7 Tufts, #8 Mitchell, and #9 Suffolk had clinched tourney berths by winning their conference tournaments. That left the other six in the discussion for an at-large.
Why UMass Boston?
As you all know, UMass Boston, #3 in the final rankings, got the region’s lone at-large bid. Let’s explain why.
(To do that, we need some numbers. Below are several key metrics for each team. RR is where they fell in those regional rankings we just mentioned, Record is their regular-season win-loss, RS Finish reflects how well they played in their conference, ISR (see here for the original) is an RPI-like formula that allows us to weigh that Record against SOS (strength of schedule), which comes next. Vs RR is their record against regionally ranked opponents from all regions, a reflection of how well they played in their toughest games. Conf Tourney, finally, is their record and finish at their league’s championship. Not precisely what the committee goes by, but some of that data isn’t readily available, and these metrics give us a pretty good approximation of what the committee values most: how well you played, and how good your opponents were.)
Let’s assume that only the top 3 had a shot at coming off the board first. Western New England, eliminated by Endicott in the CCC tournament, wasn’t going to leapfrog the Gulls. Amherst’s two-and-cue at the NESCACs wasn’t going to see them rise either. And Saint Joe’s was a bit too far down the list for consideration here. That leaves us with #1 Southern Maine, #3 UMass Boston, and #4 Endicott.
At first glance, Southern Maine looks to be in the best shape. A slightly better record against a slightly tougher schedule, and, of course, the big #1 the committee slapped next to their name just three days before selections. When you move further to the right, however, UMB and Endicott’s cases start to look better. The Huskies went 0-2 at LECs, and also sub-.500 against regionally ranked opponents. The Beacons and Gulls both had better RR records, and did better in their conference tournaments. And crucially, head-to-head, the Beacons went 3-0 against USM, the Gulls 2-0.
In the end, the committee went with UMB. They won all three of their games with USM this, and beat Endicott handily in the clubs’ single head-to-head matchup. Also, despite playing the fewest RR games, they did extremely well (6-1) in them. If I were Endicott, I’d point out that we’d played nearly twice as many RR games as UMB, did fairly well (7-6) in them, and still managed to post a nearly identical record. If I were USM, I’d be wondering why, if two head-to-head wins by UMB were only enough to put them at #3 to USM’s #1 in the final rankings, one more head-to-head win and a slightly better showing at the LECs was enough to vault the Beacons ahead. But overall, UMB’s head-to-head superiority and excellent RR record seem pretty reasonable ways to separate three teams with broadly similar resumes.
Why Didn’t USM or Endicott Come Off the Board Next?
Here’s where my views start to diverge from the committee’s. As we’ve just seen, both Southern Maine and Endicott had very good resumes. Not perfect, but very good. So why weren’t they enough for one of the other 13 at-large bids?
To look into this, let’s compare USM, Endicott, and, for good measure, Western New England to the tournament qualifiers that seem to have come off the board last: the at-large teams seeded in the bottom half of their regional. Same metrics, except we now expand the list to include five more teams from across the nation.
I think we can safely put three teams into the tournament based on this. Whitworth’s ISR/SOS is way too good to leave home, and Kean and Wash U both had strong records against tough schedules and played right around .500 against an ample slate of regionally ranked opponents. That leaves our New Englander clubs, Johns Hopkins, and Ohio Wesleyan with, in theory, two berths left to hand out.
The biggest strike against both USM and Endicott is their lower ISR/SOS numbers. What this basically comes down to is that the formulas think their New England opponents weren’t as good as the teams JHU or OWU played in region. I suspect this has something to do with how much we as a region have to play away from home, where it’s tougher to win, but I don’t know for sure. The bottom line is that although all the teams in this discussion put together quality schedules by their regions’ standards, the formulas thought New England was worse than the Mid-Atlantic or the Mideast.
That said, though, USM and Endicott can both make very strong arguments that they were more deserving than either Hopkins or Ohio Wesleyan.
In USM’s case, the Huskies were pretty much on par with those two in every category. Slightly better RR record, slightly worse SOS, but overall, it’s a wash. The Maine-sized elephant in the room, however, is the regional rankings. Despite their 0-2 LEC Tourney performance, I’d be shocked if the Huskies were considered lower than #3 in the committee’s eyes, and a #3 that wasn’t far behind #1 or #2 at that. Which leaves me with one question: how in the name of all that is holy does the sixth-ranked team from the Mid-Atlantic make the field before the (at worst) third-ranked team from New England? For this to make sense, you’d have to consider JHU’s Mid-Atlantic to be light-years ahead of USM’s New England. I certainly don’t, but then again, I’m biased. But you know who else doesn’t? The committee. They took Keystone, the second-ranked team in Hopkins’ region, and sent them to the New England Regional as the four seed, below Tufts, who entered the final weekend ranked seventh in New England. The committee somehow concluded that because of one bad weekend, USM went from being the best team in New England to being worse than Mid-Atlantic #6 Johns Hopkins, who was four spots worse than Mid-Atlantic #2 Keystone, who was worse than New England #7 Tufts. It just doesn’t make sense.
And then there’s Endicott. Yeah, the Gulls had a slightly worse ISR/SOS than Southern Maine, but they didn’t have a bad conference tournament to apologize for, and more to the point, they went 7-6 in their thirteen games against regionally ranked opponents. Hopkins was 2-and-freaking-8. Ohio Wesleyan played fewer games (6) than Endicott won (7) against regionally ranked opponents, and they were a paltry 2-4 in the ones they did. Those teams edge out the Gulls in some other categories, but not by enough to close that enormous gap in how well they scheduled, and how well they played in their biggest games.
It’s especially bizarre, because since the first regional rankings were released, the committee has been sending the message that if you want to make the tournament, you need to be a sadomasochist of a scheduler. Schools that did fairly well against tough teams (think USM and Wheaton) were consistently rewarded with high rankings at the expense of teams like Tufts, who had a better record against a weaker schedule and was left on the fringe of the rankings until the very end. Then, when the rubber hit the road on Selection Sunday, all of that went out the window. You could forget all that stuff about needing to play well against a tough schedule, because a 2-8 record against regionally ranked teams was good enough to see you into the field. It’s like a professor teaching you French all semester only to shove an organic chemistry exam in front of you when finals roll around. If the committee wants to de-emphasize certain criteria, that’s its prerogative, but don’t pull a bait-and-switch on Selection Sunday.
Why Does My Team Have to Travel?
Okay, I can hop off the soapbox for this last one. The committee was very travel-happy this year, and New England wasn’t spared the long bus rides.
UMass Boston will be heading to the Mid-Atlantic Regional in Pennsylvania as the #5 seed. Considering that New England is being sent a Pennsylvania team (Keystone) as its #4 seed, it’s a tad strange, but ultimately, it comes down to the fact that the committee prefers to separate teams from the same conference. In 2014, for example, the NESCAC was a three-bid league, and Tufts, Amherst, and Wesleyan were sent to three different regionals. That said, there’s plenty of precedent going the other way. That same year, for example, Little East clubs Southern Maine and Eastern Connecticut both took part in the New England Regional, and everything turned out fine. I’m not completely averse to having teams travel, but it feels a little ridiculous for a Pennsylvania team to be sent to New England only for a New England team to take its place in Pennsylvania.
The reasoning when it comes to Salve Regina (#7 in the Mid-Atlantic) and Castleton (#6 in New York) is different. Basically, the committee doesn’t think our region produced enough teams deserving of a spot in the top half of the bracket. They could have remedied that, of course, by letting in USM and/or Endicott, but they didn’t, so we get Oswego and Keystone to fill out the top half of our bracket, while Salve and Castleton get squeezed out of the bottom half and onto a King Ward.
In the end, I come back around to beat the same drum I did last year: this tournament is just too small. Fourteen at-large bids simply aren’t enough. It’s one thing to have a bad decision to get angry over every couple years. It’s another thing entirely to consistently see deserving teams left out. The tournament needs to be expanded. Earlier this year, the D3 Baseball Committee asked the NCAA to do precisely that and got turned down. Until that sort of thinking changes, this post is going to be an annual tradition for some time to come.