MJ: A Dose of Fresh Faces in MD3 Tourney
The nature of the automatic qualifying system and how the at-larges are doled out means the NCAA Division III men's tournament typically has a very static feel. We see the same teams over and over, with the same handful typically in the hunt at the end. It's not really that different this year, with 19 of the 26 teams in the field having been in the bracket last year.
But there is some reason for optimism with a substantial injection of new blood this spring. There are five teams -- Adrian, Amherst, Colorado College, Scranton and Union -- that are making their first-ever appearance in the dance.
Adrian earned a berth as a Pool B candidate out of the Midwest League Conference, which joins the automatic qualifying ranks in 2012. Amherst was the only first time Pool C (at-large) selection after finishing with only two losses in the NESCAC under the leadership of first-year head coach John Thompson. Colorado College (SCAC), Scranton (Landmark) and Union (Liberty) all punched their ticket via their respective conference AQs.
The importance of seeing new teams in tournament can not be overstated. It is not only a barometer telling the NCAA that the sport is evolving and expanding into different areas, but it shows institutions flirting with the idea of adding the sport to its varsity roll that this isn't just an Old Boys Club. If you commit to the sport, you'll get a fair shake at playing for a national championship.
Bashing the Pool B concept is low-hanging fruit and I've done it in the past, but as much as we don't want to admit the fact, it does serve a purpose. The Beta pool has put Michigan among the states with an NCAA participant this year with the inclusion of Adrian, and was a big reason Colorado College was able to improve to the point where it could dominate its conference when the SCAC finally came online.
Are these newbies going to be contenders this year? Probably not. Amherst and Union have the best shot at advancing another round or so, but it's unrealistic to expect them to make a splash this soon. Getting that first taste is important, however. Tufts won the national championship after qualifying for just the third time last year, so the timeline is shrinking.
We're always going to see the usual suspects on an annual basis because there is a reason good teams stay good. But the inclusion of new teams into the mix, if only five, should be seen by everyone as a sign the sport, and Division III in particular, is proceeding in the right direction.