I know what you are thinking. It’s the offseason so it’s time for me to take shots at the New England Region. I can’t argue the logic although it’s really a year-round activity for me. With that said, that’s not what this post is about. I come to praise the New England Region, not to bury it!
One of the more startling things to see each year is the SOS numbers for the top New England teams. For the most part, these teams do not fly or really seek out top tournaments but every year their teams get a number of at-large bids because, frankly, their criteria demands it. I want to look at how this occurs and whether the West Region can duplicate whatever elixir New England has discovered. So, let’s take a deep dive into a New England team that when you watched play created questions in your own mind but who’s criteria absolutely demanded an at-large bid. I give you the 2018 Wellesley Blues.
Wellesley received an at-large bid out of New England after going 20-6 with a 0.617 SOS and a 6-5 ranked wins record. To put that SOS in context, no other West Region team had a higher SOS than Wellesley. As for those three criteria, they each exceeded the average of all of the 2018 at-large teams. Every team in the last two years (only data I have) that has exceeded all three averages has received an at-large bid. With that said, when you look at the teams Wellesley played and the teams they lost to, you have to question why they get selected at all. But, if the National Selection Committee is going to react consistently to this type of resume, the West Region needs to see if they can adjust and match it.
As an overview of the Wellesley schedule, know that they played 26 matches during the regular season and conference tournament. They finished 4th in the NEWMAC out of which 2 teams got at-large bids and one got the Pool A bid. Oddly, the regular season champion was the one team out of those four that did not make the NCAA Tournament. (If you want to know more about the ordering of the New England Region this year, click here.) Know that the NEWMAC consists of 11 teams and the conference only plays each other once at one team’s gym or the other. Wellesley only stayed in the New England Region and consequently only played one out-of-region team. When categorizing their opponents, they played 7 teams in conference (including tournament) that had a final record higher than the target SOS (defined as 0.612 in 2018) and 5 teams with a worse record. Out-of-conference, they played 7 with a better record than the target SOS and 7 with a worse record. Of the 14 teams with a better record than the target SOS, Wellesley lost to 6 of them.
I was interested to see if we had a team in the West Region that I could do a comparison that sort of matched Wellesley’s schedule and I choose Chapman out of the SCIAC. Chapman played 27 matches (1 more than Wellesley) this season including the SCIAC Tournament. Although Chapman finished 3rd in the SCAIC, their SOS was a woeful 0.538, which was a major reason they went unranked in the West Region. Once you look at the Chapman schedule you can immediately see why their SOS is such a problem as they only played 8 teams that had a record higher than the target SOS (remember Wellesley played 14). First we have to look at the SCIAC where we find Chapman played 7 of those matches against 10 where the teams had records below the target SOS. Remember that in the SCIAC, teams play each conference opponent twice. So, our first finding is very surprising in that despite the SCIAC being one of the tougher conferences in the nation and having given us 2 different national champions in the last 4 years, it actually hurts their teams more than the NEWMAC with respect to SOS. Then to top it off, teams play a second round just to double the damage as it were. When we look at Chapman’s out-of-conference schedule, it was dreadful as only 1 of the 10 teams played had a final record higher than the target SOS. The second finding is the obvious one; play better out-of-conference teams.
Let’s look at the first finding. Wellesley gets a boost from their conference because the lower teams in the NEWMAC still end up with really good records. This is done by beating teams outside of their conference (only 3 of the 11 finished with sub 0.500 records). Now in the SCIAC, only 4 teams out of the 10 finished with sub 0.500 records so not too much of a difference but only two teams (other than Chapman) had records higher than our target SOS. Looking at the top teams in the NEWMAC, 5 of the 11 teams had fewer than 10 losses. In the SCIAC, only 2 of the 10 teams had fewer than 10 losses. I believe a contributing factor to this is that the SCIAC plays each other twice. A deep conference playing home and home series will create more losses overall for all of the schools with the exception of maybe the top school. I mean look at it this way…the SCIAC second pass through conference will guarantee the conference 36 wins and 36 losses. We know the top teams under consideration for an at-large will have more wins than losses so the second pass through conference guarantees a sub 0.500 SOS add on to teams they play (now twice).
The second finding is a problem for the west, especially for the SCIAC and the NWC. Our teams need to play better out-of-conference matches but we are on an island. For our teams to play opponents that a Wellesley can play, they need to fly. In order to play 14 different teams then they need to make at least 3 flights (if not 4)! The ASC and SCAC are slightly better off because they have each other. This doesn’t include Colorado College or JWU (Co) who really are in unique positions in the DIII landscape. There already is a lot of cross play between the ASC and SCAC but it would probably help if it could be more formalized. They really need to find a way to ensure the top 4 teams in the ASC play the top 4 in the SCAC as I’m sure Colorado College would fly down for that. Setup a weekend and rotate it between the schools each year. For these conferences, it will reduce the number of out-of-conference teams required to where maybe only two flights would be required.
The third finding from the Wellesley schedule is that you don’t need to play the top teams in the nation to secure the SOS required. It’s common for our top teams in the West to go play teams like WUSTL, Juniata, Emory, etc. but as Wellesley shows us, it’s not required. The NCAA Selection Committee should reward this but consistently it doesn’t so why play the selection game by different rules? Where should the West go if they can’t find the matches they need within driving distance? I’d go to the New York and New England Regions where there is some consistency over what teams typically have good records while not being world beaters. The Mid-Atlantic is also available but it’s a little more stretched out. Regardless, I would stick with the larger regions because they can regionally rank more teams.
For the NWC and SCIAC, they are not making three trips. In most cases they are not making two trips. In fact, the West Region RAC sort of told teams this year (via Colorado College’s initial rankings) that if you are going to make a trip, you’d better play in-region because they need the data points to rank you. With that said, it’s the wrong message. If a team has a choice between improving their SOS or playing in-region, they should improve their SOS because that’s what will count to the National Selection Committee.
Alright let me get specific and see if I can give recommendations to each conference on how best to mimic a Wellesley type of a schedule.
NWC & SCIAC
- Go to one time through the conference (8 matches).
- Implement a 6 team conference tournament (1 to 3 matches).
- Expand the conference, if possible.
- Teams without realistic NCAA Tournament prospects need to play in two tournaments with teams that allow them to build up their records (8 to 12 matches).
- Teams with NCAA Tournament visions need to play in at least three tournaments and ensure that at least half of the teams will have good to great records (12 matches).
- Round out your schedule with non-DIII teams.
Lots of problems with this, I know. Beside the costs and the concept of the “lesser” teams being sacrificial lambs for the better teams there is the issue of fewer matches on the year. With the SCIAC able to draw teams to them during the season, they have a better shot at something like this. NWC is in a tougher position and frankly none of this works for them.
ASC & SCAC
- Go to one time through the conference (ASC 10 matches & SCAC 9 matches after 2019 expansion).
- ASC needs to discard the double-elimination format to their conference tournament (1 to 3 matches).
- Cross play the conferences one weekend but decide midseason which teams go where. Top 4 earn the right to play the other top 4 (4 matches).
- Teams need to play at least two tournaments with proper scheduling depending on team’s prospects.
- Round out your schedule with non-DIII teams.
Again, fewer matches with this approach unless more trips can be made. Texas does a good job drawing teams into the state so the travel issues will be lessen. The teams at the bottom of the standings will have issues trying to build up their records without going out-of-region and that’s probably the biggest problem with this.
The last bullet on both sets of recommendations deal with playing non-DIII teams. It’s far better for a team with NCAA Tournament prospects to play an NAIA or DII team than DIII teams with 1 or 2 wins on the year. When playing a 1 win DIII team you basically have to play two teams that end the year with 27+ wins just to make up for the damage to your SOS.
Is any of this realistic? Probably not. Without more conferences/teams in the West Region within driving distance to what is currently required to mimic the “Wellesley Blueprint” then this isn’t going to be viable. Just considering only the suggested changes to the conference tournaments is problematic. I reached out to the ASC, NWC and SCIAC to see if they were considering any changes to their tournaments. The ASC said it may be discussed in their coaches meeting in the spring. The SCIAC indicated that their 4-team tournament will remain and that it will stay consistent with their other conference tournaments across all sports. I didn’t hear back from the NWC. I was a little disheartened by the SCIAC response as I believe the conferences should do what they can to put their teams in the best possible light. I don’t believe a common format in conference tournaments help that cause. The NCAA selection committees don’t evaluate the selection criteria in the same manner across sports so I just don’t see how a one solution approach is beneficial.
On a fan level, a number of these suggestions are counter-productive. I wouldn’t like only one match against conference opponents . I believe having two matches within conference promotes rivalries and clarifies the quality of the conference. I certainly wouldn’t enjoy fewer matches. What does work for me as a fan? I like 6-team conference tournaments. I like the concept of an ASC/SCAC rivalry weekend. I like the thought of more out-of-region matches in order to spread some West Region love. (By “love” I mean 3-set sweeps.)
So, at this point, we have a number of suggestions that attempt to duplicate a typical New England schedule. Most of it doesn’t work. So, I’ll end with the D3VbWest blueprint:
- Conference crossovers
- We have four conferences in the West Region. Let’s formalize crossover play in the same manner as the ASC and SCAC do in conference play. Half of Conference 1 (C1) plays half of Conference 2 (C2). Half of C2 plays half of C3. Half of C3 plays half of C4. Half of C4 plays half of C1. Teams can always schedule more matches but this gives the RAC data points to use in their rankings.
- Play out-of-region
- As much as you can but let’s get one tournament scheduled, at least.
- Focus on regional ranked teams
- It’s great that our top teams will go to WUSTL and Emory and don’t shy away from the traditional powerhouses, but the NCAA is telling us we’re fools for doing it. Keep doing it if it works for your program but don’t shy away from a weekend in the larger regions playing their top teams. Franklin & Marshall was ranked 4th in the Mid-Atlantic, received an at-large bid but lost to Redlands and Occidental (and, of course, La Verne). We can’t shy away from playing teams like this and reaping their regional ranking benefits.
Before I end this, I wanted to give a shout-out to Lewis & Clark. Lewis & Clark was a 2 win team in 2017 and they are a blueprint to the other teams that struggled this year. In 2018 they played in the Oregon Trail Classic beating two out-of-region teams that they could match up against. They then went to the Washington and Lee Invitational where they played three tough matches against out-of-region teams, winning all three. They would end up finishing 6th in the NWC but their overall record was 12-10. They improved their team while also making smart scheduling decisions that helped out the top NWC teams by not hurting their SOS. If we do nothing else, we need to promote this type of schedule for teams in the bottom half of our conferences.
Okay…last word. The simplest solution is for the NCAA to realize that not all regions are created equal and that a 0.617 SOS in New England has no comp in the West Region. The selection criteria need to be intelligently discussed with a common goal of getting the best 19 at-large teams in the tournament. As long as I have followed the process, the DIII volleyball selection committee has told us that they are not interested in this. At this point, I’m all for playing their selection game and seeing if we can do it better.