Independent's Day: MD3 Tourney Breakdown
The field for the NCAA Division III men's national tournament field will only expand by one team in 2013, according to NCAA representative Will Hopkins, but the pool breakdown of the bids has been altered significantly.
There will be a 29-team bracket this spring, with the bulk of the bids consumed by Pool A (automatic qualifiers) contenders, as there will be 19 teams that punch their ticket to the dance via conference championships. The berths reserved for independents (Pool B) and at-large (Pool C) have shifted dramatically. Last spring saw Pool B earn three bids and Pool C possess seven, but things have evened up, with both of these subsets earning five slots apiece.
The rise of Pool B seems counterintuitive, especially with the departure of the NCAC, which had hoarded unaffiliated bids for the last half-decade but were finally forced into the AQ realm with the addition of DePauw and Hiram. The NCAC's departure was negated, however, by a huge influx of new "independents" this spring.
The crack-up of the SCAC, and the subsequent formation of the Southern Athletic Association (eight teams), along with the machinations of the MAC split (seven teams) — a couple of leagues that won't come off the Pool B roll until 2015 — and the NCAC's departure became irrelevant. Throw in another 20 or so from long-time independent programs and a host of fledgling non-affiliated schools and the numbers mandated an enlargement of Pool B.
In itself, this isn't a big deal. In fact, it should be applauded since it is a direct reflection of the massive growth at the Division III level. Alas, since the two extra Pool B bids appear to have come at the expense of Pool C, there will be some angst among coaches and fans associated with power conferences.
With last year's seven at-large spots, the NESCAC was able to grab three additional teams, the Centennial two and one extra for the CAC and Liberty. Five of those seven teams managed to advance to the second round and two of them advanced all the way to the quarterfinals. On the flipside, only one of the three Pool B teams, which all came from the established NCAC, made it out of the first round.
The knee-jerk reaction is to believe that without the NCAC to brace it, the five Pool B teams in '13 will simply be first round space-fillers with no legitimate chance at making a deep run, so why reward them with so many bids? It's a legitimate question, but it ignores the reality that there are plenty of conference AQ winners who fit the same bill.
And let's be honest: If history is any guide, of the 29 teams that will qualify for the tournament this spring, there might be 10 with legitimate aspirations of playing on Memorial Day weekend. And that might be generous.
Further, while the sixth and seventh Pool C teams might be more competitive than the fourth or fifth Pool B squads, last year's final two at-large berths went to Conn. College and Gettysburg — a pair of teams that finished the regular season at 10-6 and didn't make the finals of their respective conference tourney. Not exactly killer résumés.
Ultimately, the pool breakdown is not conjured by the man behind the curtain. It's all formulaic, and this is what the numbers provide us this spring. And every Pool A/C team knows what avenues are available to the postseason months before the season starts, so there should be no whining on Selection Sunday (although there will be).
As for those teams eligible for Pool B, this is their year to prove the doubters wrong.