A Mind-boggling Selection Process

Bob Hogue
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Wednesday - December 09, 2009
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When the NCAA Division I women’s volleyball selections were announced, University of Hawaii Wahine head coach Dave Shoji threw his hands up in the air in disgust. His reaction was warranted.

His eventual comment to reporters that the selection process “makes no sense” is right on the button.

Whether you’re a volleyball coach at a Division I school like Shoji or the commissioner of an NCAA Division II conference as I am, the selection process in virtually every sport is mind-boggling.

When Hawaii, the third-ranked team in the entire nation, was seeded 12th and sent on the road in the first round of the NCAA Division I regionals, Shoji and Wahine fans were stunned. Meanwhile, a couple of weeks earlier, I threw my hands up in the air when PacWest champion UH Hilo was given a No. 4 seed in the DII west region despite a 25-1 record, including an unbeaten non-conference mark. Somehow, the committee saw fit to select a team with seven losses to put in the No. 3 slot.

Go figure!

If that’s not bad enough, our PacWest men’s soccer champions from Grand Canyon had the third best overall record in the region and beat the defending national champions during non-conference, but were still left totally empty-handed when selections were announced. In that case, the national committee had four slots to fill and filled them all with teams from the same conference!

How’s that for a balanced field? The problem is something that is often alluded to: “strength of schedule,” or SOS.

The powerful conferences in DI and DII have it - meaning their teams top to bottom have overall better records than all the teams combined from the so-called less-powerful conferences.

In DI, for example, the Pac-10 or the Big 12 trumps the WAC, and in DII, the California Collegiate (CCAA) trumps the PacWest and the Great Northwest (GNAC). This means a third- or fourth-place team from one of the power conferences will have a stronger SOS (often referred to as RPI in some sports) than the top team in a less-powerful conference.

They get most of the bracket spots and most of the best seeds, and we don’t.

I’ve argued that this makes no sense - same words that Coach Shoji uses, coincidentally - to NCAA staffers and committee members. In DII, I serve on two of the ranking committees and have seen firsthand how powerful strength of schedule plays into the final decisions.

Two years ago, for example, HPU had the best softball record in the entire nation, but was kept out of the eight-team regional tournament field because of a weak strength of schedule.

We’ve seen similar scenarios play out for UH Wahine basketball teams and others over the years.

Most observers think it’s about politics. It’s not. The people on the committees aren’t sitting around wearing jack-boots and working in a smoke-filled room. These committee members are actually regular people like you and me: athletic staff and administrators from schools and conferences around the country making decisions based on numerical criteria that were established before the seasons even start. Sure, there are some personal biases in the discussion process, but ultimately it’s that criteria that needs to be fixed.

My argument is that while strength of schedule is an important component of criteria, it shouldn’t be of such high importance, as it is now. Power conference teams shouldn’t get credit for losing a game in their tough conference schedule, and strong teams such Hawaii, or from the PacWest, should not be marked down because there are some weaker teams in their conference.

The criteria should be open for all to see, and simplified. Overall records and head-to-head competition should be of most importance, then factored in with some of the computer-generated numbers such as strength of schedule, records against common opponents, and perhaps a quality win index.

Limiting the number of teams from one conference also should be considered.

At the end of the day, more than anything else, common sense has to be thrown into the equation. If my champion beats your champion and we also have a better record, then we’re in. If we have the best record in the country despite whom we played, then we’re in.

And if we have the third-ranked team in the country, as voted on by coaches who know their sport, then for goodness sake show some respect and put us in a tournament bracket that shows an understanding of that fact.

As one NCAA staffer told me my first year as commissioner, “We know it’s not perfect.”

But it still has to make sense.

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