The need for a 16 team tournament

Yes, we are in the midst of yet another great D-III men’s ice hockey national championship tournament with this year’s Frozen Four in Minnesota next weekend. The action all year has been great, and unfortunately for some teams and their fans, the season ended prematurely at the end of the conference tournaments last week.
Just look at Utica, Castleton, Williams, Hobart, Manhattanville to name but five teams with great seasons, and you have to wonder how much better the NCAA tournament would be with a 16-team field like D-I tournament set to begin in two weeks.
By pure ratio standards, a comparison between the D-I and D-III tournaments seem to be out of whack. In D-I, 16 teams of 58 total qualify for the national tournament, with just five automatic qualifiers among the entrants. In D-III, just 11 teams of 73 qualify for the postseason, and eight of those teams are automatic entries, leaving just three at- large bids for other worthy teams.  It is only going to get worse, as next year the MASCAC conference is eligible for an AQ, and that will leave just two pool bids remaining for filling the remaining participants in the national tournament.
Let me state first that I love March Madness — but more from the hockey craziness that is the postseason and not basketball. It is a blast for hoops  filling out the brackets and rooting for the upset that may help you win the office pool this year. It has become a big tradition in the spring across the country, but in looking at the tournament, does anyone really believe the 60-68th seeds have any kind of chance to win the title? Frankly, does anyone above number 32 have a realistic chance? The answer is probably no, as we have not seen a college version of Hoosiers play out other than the occasional Elite Eight or rare Final Four surprise over decades of the tournament. The fact is, expanding the tournament has become more about expanding participation and opportunities for schools across the country to play on a national stage, as well as correctly rewarding teams with a great season that may have had a one-game stumble in their conference tournament that lost them the AQ for the conference.
In D-III hockey, there are many talented teams that aren’t playing in the NCAAs and probably should be. Moreover, any of the teams that would be added, such as the teams named above, would not be token adds but teams with a legitimate chance of winning the national championship. The number of teams has grown, and so too has the level of competition that makes any bid to the NCAA tournament a precious opportunity to play for the top prize in the game.
Additionally think of the carnage that might have been created if Fredonia or Babson had won their conference title and taking the AQ that may have eliminated a Norwich or, although unlikely, a Plattsburgh from consideration.  Either way, the 11-team field for 2011 would have been different with having to adjust the pool bids to accommodate the upsets. In short, the time has come for a change to a 16-team tournament at the D-III level.
Right now, there is a movement to propose a 16-team tournament, and there is guarded optimism that it will be approved, but not without some time to work through the NCAA’s complicated approval process.
A reliable source within the NCAA selection committee indicates there is a proposed format for expanding the tournament that includes the following key points:

  • 16 teams playing in four regional brackets hosted by the top-seeded school over a two-day weekend event;
  • A semifinal game to be played at the remaining highest seed;
  • The tournament final to be played in conjunction with the D-I Frozen Four, with the game taking place on Friday between the semis and final and as part of the scheduled skills competition to add more interest to what is already one of the best sports weekends in college sports.

The multiple division games at one venue is consistent with the approach in men’s college lacrosse, where all three divisions play at the same venue on Memorial Day weekend. That event has continued to increase in popularity, based on the competition and diversity across the divisions — something that hockey aficionados would find exciting as well.
There will be much more to follow, including discussion on the logistics, approval and schedule for the proposal, and required NCAA vote. In the meantime, enjoy the excitement of the tournament in the current format, as there are just three games remaining for a team to be crowned as the 2011 D-III national champion.