NCAA Championship: Three for the Price of One

Richard Hunkler, PhD.
Water Polo Planet
05/15/08

Almost every year before the start of the NCAA Championship one or more individuals posts on the message board a couple of perennial questions: 1) Why are Division II and III teams allowed in the NCAA Championship; and 2) How come teams with a lesser ranking than other teams get to go to the NCAA Championship. Thus, to answer the first question someone has to explain that the NCAA Championship is NOT a Division I Championship but rather it is an Open Championship. This means a championship for all divisions, and not to let Division II and III participate in the NCAA Open Championship would not only be unfair but it would be downright criminal.

As of today there are 32 Division I women’s teams and 28 Division II and III women’s teams and there are 22 Division I men’s teams and 20 Division II and III men’s teams. Duh! It doesn’t take a mathematician from the Princeton Institute of Advance Study to determine that almost half of the women’s and half of the men’s teams are NOT Division I teams nor does it take a person on a soap box in Berkeley’s square shouting " If there were NO Division II and III teams then there would be NO NCAA Men’s or Women’s Water Polo Championship" to make us true believers of the importance of these teams.

Also note that the NCAA selects teams for its sports’ championships based on both conference championships and at-large-bids. Asking the NCAA to change the way they run NCAA Championships for 35 sports not including football would be similar to asking George W. Bush or John McCain to withdraw troops from the quagmire of Iraq. It just isn’t going to happen for our brave men and women in uniform or for our non-producing revenue sport or, more importantly, for our non-producing TV audience sport! (Why didn’t we invade Saudi Arabia because 18 of the 20 airplane hijackers were from there not Iraq? They have something much more powerful than weapons of mass destruction they have “around one-fifth of proven, conventional world oil reserves”.)

For the second question concerning team rankings, the answer has to do with the internal flaw in almost any sports ranking in which each team does not play every other team the same number of times – it is not very reliable. In point of fact a ranking based on teams that do not play all teams is about as reliable as a presidential vote counter in Zimbabwe. Even when every team plays every other team in the ranking it is still not very reliable because most rankings do not follow the simple "Hypothetical Syllogism" rule of inference, that is, “If A then B and If B then C are true. If A then C is true”. In other words if team A beats team B and if team B beats team C then we cannot assume in all cases if team A can beat team C.

For once in my lifetime I would like to see the water polo community be more concerned with the growth of water polo than with who gets to go to a NCAA Water Polo Championship. At this point in our history I truly believe that the existing NCAA Championship helps grow our sport in this country. Don’t think of the ability of the collegiate water polo teams in terms of divisions but think of it in terms of, for lack of a better word, tiers. We all know that some Division II and III teams can beat some Division I teams.  Also at this point in time I believe we have three tiers of ability among the collegiate teams. Thus, think of the NCAA Water Polo Championship as three championships for the price of one. The Tier I Champion for women is decided from game #5, game #6, and game #12 of the championship; the Tier 2 Champion for women is decided from game #4 and game #6; and the Tier 3 Champion for women is game #9. You could create a similar pattern of games for the men’s championship.

As I said I believe we have three tiers of ability in both men’s and women’s collegiate water polo teams. I hope someday soon we will have only two tiers or two championships for the price of one and eventually we will have only one tier a true Championship. Let’s hope; however, that water polo doesn’t follow what is happening to the income classes in our country because it appears we are dissolving into two classes – the haves and the have-not's. If you cannot buy my argument of three championships for the price of one then maybe you can buy into Rafael Ruano’s lucid explanation as to why other teams should be included:

Lastly, the argument that the weaker teams do not deserve to be in the NCAA tournament is short-sighted and selfish. We need Marist to play at NCAA's, as well as the Pomona’s and Michigan’s (which is also ranked lower than other "shafted" schools). They provide the geographic and divisional diversity that legitimizes our sport as truly national (even though it really is not...yet). I yearn for the day when Ohio State and Florida play for the women's water polo national championship, having beaten a plucky Cinderella team from Princeton and Texas in the national semi-finals. Stanford, UCLA, USC and San Diego State having been beaten in the Elite Eight. Pomona won the D3 Championship played in the Eastern time zone and the D1 tournament was 16 teams big with 12 automatic qualifiers, including the Big 10, SEC and Big 12. When that day comes, not only will water polo be healthy and thriving, we will also be able to continue to argue the merit of the winner of the MAAC participating in the 2020 NCAA Championship.

If you are still not sold on the way the NCAA Sport Championships are run then I am going to bring out the argument of my heavy slugger, the Co-coach of UC Santa Cruz, Alan Cima:

That is not how sports, let alone the world is. Washington would not be in the NHL playoffs if they were in a different division, many times in MLB a team does not qualify for the post-season when they have a better record than the winner of a different conference, assuredly every four years the #3 athlete from Russia in an Olympic event, who doesn't get to go to the Olympics, would have beaten the #1 from Algeria who does get to and every four years somebody loses a senate race in California with more votes than ten other senate winners combined.

If you are still not convinced and you still wish to place your head in the sand then, remember, all you are doing is clogging up your senses.

Email Coach Hunkler at rhunkler@waterpoloplanet.com