Fair Play?

All will probably end well this weekend. You can make a case that the four best teams made it to Middlebury, and that a worthy national champion will be crowned. But in the eyes of many fans, coaches and players, the 2002 NCAA Division III tournament has been tainted by a selection process that seemed to put dollars ahead of fairness.

When it was announced back in December, the addition of a ninth team was unanimously welcomed. It allowed for an extra at-large team to be added, partially rectifying the format change in 1999-2000 that increased the number of automatic qualifiers from three to seven, thereby reducing the number of at-large berths from five to two.

As it was initially envisioned, and as it was explained to me, the play-in game would be between the two lowest eastern seeds. In a 6-3 split, the winner would then be sent west to even things up. In a 5-4 situation, the winner of the play-in would stay in the east as the lowest seed.

That was the assumption that most of us had throughout the season. But rumblings and rumors began to surface a few weeks ago about the possibility of putting the play-in game in the west in the event of a 6-3 split.

"Based on what’s happening, the west will never host the finals again."

— St. Norbert coach Tim Coghlin

The cat had to come out of the bag as the NCAA tournament approached, since the play-in game would necessitate a quarterfinal series on a Saturday and Sunday as opposed to the customary Friday and Saturday. Schools that might be affected were contacted to see if they had ice available for the new schedule.

One of the schools contacted was St. Norbert, and head coach Tim Coghlin was concerned. His fears were realized when the announcement came on March 3 that St. Thomas, winner of the MIAC, would meet NCHA champion Wisconsin-Superior in three days, with the winner headed to St. Norbert for a weekend series. There would be only one quarterfinal series in the west.

“From the view from the west, these are the worst NCAA pairings I have seen in the 16 years that I’ve been associated with college hockey,” said Coghlin.

Besides virtually assuring that the D-III frozen Four would be in the east for the sixth time in the past eight years (since there was no way the NCAA would fly three eastern teams west), the pairings left many with the impression that St. Thomas and Wisconsin-Superior were being considered as the two lowest seeds in the tournament, since that’s who usually is relegated to a play-in game.

The official seedings had the Tommies and YellowJackets as merely the second and third western seeds.

Not so fast, said Coghlin.

“Next year tell the number two and three eastern teams that they have to play a play-in game, and see what happens.”

St. Norbert had to scramble to play on Saturday and Sunday, rescheduling 16 games of the Wisconsin high school championships. There wasn’t any time available for either team to practice before the game.

So what happened? Why the change from the traditional practice of balancing out the teams so that each region had two quarterfinals series?

The NCAA wouldn’t comment, but did refer me to a section of the Division III manual:

“ Nonrevenue Championship Site Assignment. Team championships that do not generate revenues, pairings shall be based primarily on the teams’ geographical proximity to one another, regardless of their region, in order to avoid air travel in preliminary rounds whenever possible. Teams’ seeding relative to one another may be taken into consideration when establishing pairings if such a pairing does not result in air travel that otherwise could be avoided.”

Division III hockey is considered a nonrevenue sport. No Division III sport made money last season — lacrosse and hockey came the closest, being in the black excluding travel expenses.

So, by the book, the NCAA selection committee can pretty much do anything it wants in the interests of financial responsibility. But in past seasons, the seedings have only been tweaked a bit to avoid flying multiple teams. Last year, Lebanon Valley went to RIT and New England College went to Wisconsin-Superior in order to have only one team fly in the first round. If you went by the seedings, NEC could have flown to RIT, with LV also flying to Superior.

This season saw just one team fly for the entire tournament, the first time that that’s ever happened. In this age of cost containment, expect this trend to continue.

“Based on what’s happening, the west will never host the finals again,” said Coghlin.

“Never again.”

But what about the fans? Well, I was also referred to this passage from the Division III Philosophy:

“Division III institutions: (a) Place special importance on the impact of athletics on the participants rather than on the spectators and place greater emphasis on the internal constituency (students, alumni, institutional personnel) than on the general public and entertainment needs.”

So it’s pretty clear that the interests of Division III hockey fans were not taken into account.

But does that explain why St. Thomas was left off the T-shirts the NCAA sells to the fans that don’t matter? I realize that Division III hockey is not Division I hockey — D-III exists to serve a purpose of providing an environment that’s more balanced than Division I, as well as give more student-athletes a chance to play. But these players care as much about their sport as their D-I counterparts, and their fans don’t care any less either.

The precedent set this season doesn’t bode well for Division III hockey. Fortunately, there’s talk of additional changes on the horizon, many of which could make things better. One calls for 50 percent of the teams in the tournament field to be at-large bids. The continued addition of new programs will increase the overall field.

But for now, and probably forever, don’t expect the NCAA tournament to feature the nine best teams. This is true of all NCAA tournaments — the Division I basketball tournament makes no claim of having all the best teams — but still hard to explain to the Elmiras and St. Thomases who think they were treated unfairly.

Many will be paying close attention to next year’s selection and pairings, to see if 2002 was an aberration, or the shape of things to come.