Case Study – Berry College (2016 NCAA Selection Committee)

Special thanks to NED3VballFan as I used some research you posted on Volleytalk to help with this case study.

Each year the NCAA makes tournament selections and each year the NCAA messes up. Now don’t get me wrong as in no way do I mean for this to be critical of the NCAA. Their task is a thankless one and regardless of the teams they select they are going to be wrong. Even if, by chance, they got one year exactly correct, they would still be wrong in someone’s eyes. Keep in mind that nowhere in the above three sentences do I mention volleyball or Division III. I believe you can insert any division and any sport and what I wrote will still be true. Replace the NCAA with any other selecting organization and they would still get it wrong. With that said, this past year (2016) again had some curious selections and I thought it would be interesting (at least to me) if I could do a deep dive into one school that didn’t get selected and try to explain why they didn’t. It’s possible, but not probable, that I might do this again for a different school.

Not to stall any longer, but it is important for you to understand how the 2016 selections work so I suggest that you immediately go to my FAQ page (stolen from Ricky Nelson’s FAQ page) to brush up on some of the basics.

I assume most of you (all of you?) have ignored my advice but I’m still going to build upon the knowledge you didn’t learn from my FAQ page. Think of this as learning geometry after skipping algebra. Yeah, I’m sure you’re going to be fine, too.

For 2016 there were 20 Pool C bids and if you just asked, “What is a Pool C bid?” then you really need to go read the FAQ page! The way the bids are allocated is that each of the 8 region chairs will have a team that didn’t receive a Pool A or Pool B bid locked and loaded. The team that is locked and loaded is the highest ranked team from the RAC rankings that were put together by the 8 RACs. For 2016, these teams were:

  • Central – Washington St. Louis
  • Great Lakes – Calvin
  • Mid-Atlantic – Carnegie Mellon
  • Midwest – Wish-La Crosse
  • New England – Tufts
  • New York – Stevens
  • South – Berry
  • West – Claremont Mudd-Scripps

Nice list, right? Three of these teams made it to the final 8 and you also have your final 2 teams there. (A fourth Pool C bid also made it to the final 8.) Kind of important to get these Pool C bids correct when half of the final 8 is represented, don’t you think? Bonus question – One of these teams didn’t get selected.  Can you guess which one?

What happens next is a blood bath. Think of the worst scene in a Quentin Tarantino movie and this is how I picture the selection committee going over these teams and assigning Pool C bids. Early on, it’s easy.

“Central has Washington St. Louis.  OK, they are in.”

“Great Lakes has Calvin.  Heck, yes!”

“Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, New England, New York…sure, welcome to the dance.”

“South has Berry. You know let’s circle back to them. Sure, they’re getting in but let’s just hold off for now.”

“West – in!”

What happens next is that once a team gains the coveted Pool C bid, the region then locks and loads the next team on their RAC ranking list. Calvin is in so let me load up DePauw. The process continues for 20 rounds with the committee selecting the best team based on the criteria.

In 2016 I can’t tell you what teams were the last to get in but I have a good guess – Susquehanna, Clark (MA) and Ramapo. Now, I can tell you the teams under consideration at the very end:

  • Central – Augsburg
  • Great Lakes – Ohio Wesleyan
  • Mid-Atlantic – Salisbury
  • Midwest – Wish-Eau Claire
  • New England – Amherst
  • New York – Union
  • South – Berry
  • West – “Nah, we good. Just chill’n.”

In truth, one of those teams weren’t under consideration since I don’t know the 20th team taken off the board but just hang with me for a bit. OK, so does anyone look familiar in this second list? Berry, right? The South RAC chair was unable to get any Pool C bids assigned to her region because she could never get Berry in the door. That means teams like Birmingham-Southern and Washington & Lee were never even considered because they were after Berry in the South RAC rankings.

(Another interesting tidbit was the team from the West Region. Why don’t I list them? Because for some stupid reason the NCAA only requires the smaller regions to publically rank 8 teams so we don’t know who was under consideration since all 8 teams that we knew about received a bid. I will assume it wasn’t 0-19 Mills College but it could have been.)

Back to Berry College and the reason they weren’t selected. I mean, it’s easy, they weren’t good enough. Just because you are the highest ranked team in a region doesn’t mean you deserve to be selected! I couldn’t agree more but didn’t someone mention something about criteria awhile back? Why yes, that was me and I think we should take a deeper look at the criteria and compare it against the teams that were most likely the last selected. I mean you’ve read this far, stay with me a little longer why don’t you.

Since you have all read the 2016 Pre-Championship Manual (link found in that pesky FAQ page), you all know that there were 5 primary criteria used for selection. I listed the criteria at the bottom of this post since, let’s face it, you didn’t read the FAQ page and at this point you’d just rather trust what I’m writing.

Below is a chart with the four teams in question and the criteria used, but first I have to list my “get out of jail free” items. I did this through haphazard research (well, not that bad) so I may have a mistake. Also, go read the Strength of Schedule (SOS) criteria and I dare you to follow it. So, I just used the SOS from the NCAA stats page (which included the NCAA tournament games for the three teams that made it).

School DIII W/L Head2Head Common Opp. Ranked Opp. SOS
Berry 22-10 Beat Susq. Susq 3-0 6-6 .626
Susquehanna 31-7 Lost Berry Berry 2-0 7-6 .586
Clark (MA) 23-8 None None 5-7 .621
Ramapo 24-5 None None 4-3 .566

At some point or time, we know that during the tournament selection process Berry was compared to each of these other three teams so I listed the comparisons that should have been used. One thing that jumps out is that Berry had the worst record in the group but also the strongest SOS (in some cases the difference in SOS is significant). The NCAA is careful not to tell us what the priority of the criteria is and I’ve actually been told second hand that the criteria are considered equally. Let that sink in, if true. If Team A beats Team B 3 times in a season but has a worse common opponent record by just one game then the teams are equal! For the sake of argument I will not consider priority since I don’t truly know it. It would be nice if the NCAA would disclose this but that would require transparency and that might lead to more people wondering about the selections.

If we look at Susquehanna, we see that Berry should have been selected as they “won” three of the criteria – Head to Head, Common Opponent and SOS. Now the Common Opponent criterion is flaky in this case because Berry got to play one extra game but those are the breaks. Regardless, Berry freaking beat Susquehanna a week before the selection on a neutral court so if we want to prioritize the criteria I might put head to head at priority #1, #2 and #3.

If we look at Clark, we see that only three criteria are in play and Berry takes two of them – Ranked Opponent record and SOS. It’s possible that the SOS played out differently because it’s so close but regardless you can see that these two teams should have created a heck of a battle.

Now if we look at the team I think least deserved a spot in the tournament, we shockingly find Berry losing out as they only have a better SOS.

What does all of this mean on the surface? Well, Berry was a slam dunk to get in over Susquehanna, should have gotten in over Clark and, as the bile rises in my throat, should have lost out to Ramapo.

A lot of us that look at the process from the outside (and I hope a lot that are part of the process) would say that the criteria are the science portion of the selection process but that there should be an art side of things, too. The art side creates questions like should Ramapo even be considered with such a low SOS when they never left the New Jersey/New York area to play quality teams? Should we consider the Ranked Opponent criterion when it’s a result of the New York region ranking more teams than the south region*? Or for that matter, is their wins/losses record artificial due to the lack of quality opponents they played? It’s the art side of things that makes me believe that Ramapo was entirely unqualified to be selected into the 2016 tournament.

* NOTE – The NCAA volleyball committee recommended limiting the number of teams ranked in each region but the championship committee declined to act on it.

One more thing that probably deserves a mention is that I’m not a conspiracy theorist unless it has to do with travel playing a part in the selection of Pool C bids. You see, the NCAA doesn’t have a lot of money to fly teams to regions so a vocal group believes that when it comes to the last few Pool C bids, the NCAA looks where it’s the cheapest to play and only selects teams that can drive to that location. A lot of people in the know have said this isn’t true and I’m actually coming around to their side of things but, by not selecting Berry, it just feeds the idea that travel plays a role as you would have had to fly Berry to a regional.

So where does that leave us? You’ve invested a lot of time in this blog post and I’m sure you want answers! Well, looking at just these four teams in 2016 I think you could make the following conclusions:

  1. Berry should have been selected and the most likely reason is that the South RAC chair did a poor job in 2016 making this happen. (Or the NCAA overruled the committee because they didn’t want to fly Berry…dang…sorry…couldn’t help myself…I actually don’t believe this to be true.)
  2. The NCAA needs to do a better job to ensure the criteria are properly applied. I believe there is an art component to the process but that should never be used to pervert what happened between Berry and Susquehanna.

I do want to say that I have no relationship with Berry College but this case study was interesting to me because they were shot down for all 20 rounds so there is no doubt the comparisons took place (or should have).

The following was pulled from section 2-4 of the 2016 Pre-Championship Volleyball Manual:

PRIMARY CRITERIA The primary criteria emphasize Division III competition (all contests leading up to NCAA championships); all criteria listed will be evaluated (not listed in priority order).

  • Won-lost percentage against Division III opponents.
  • Division III head-to-head competition.
  • Results versus common Division III opponents.
  • Results versus ranked Division III teams as established by the rankings at the time of selection.

■ Conference postseason contests are included.

■ Contests versus provisional and reclassifying members in their third and fourth years shall count in the primary criteria. Provisional and reclassifying members shall remain ineligible for rankings and selections.

  • Division III strength of schedule.

– Opponents’ Average Winning Percentage (OWP).

– Opponents’ Opponents’ Average Winning Percentage (OOWP).

■ See Appendix C for an explanation of OWP and OOWP calculations. Strength of schedule will be weighted 2/3 OWP and 1/3 OOWP.

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