New four team tournament promises fairer, more exciting postseason play

Andy Jobanek

The 2003-04 Whitman women’s basketball team won 12 of their last 13 games, finished 19-6 overall and 13-3 in the Northwest conference, won a share of the conference title and was denied a chance in the NCAA Division III playoffs because of a coin flip.

“That was really hard to take,” said women’s head coach Michelle Ferenz. “It was really hard to tell a group of kids who went 13-3 in a brutal conference ‘you don’t get to go to postseason play’ and they really deserved to.”

Instead, Puget Sound won the toss and consequently received the conference’s lone automatic bid into the playoffs. Since then, the Northwest conference has examined their policy to ensure that their champion earns the conference crown on the court and not over a conference call.

The latest rule change to accomplish that goal is the instigation of a four-team conference tournament at then end of the regular season in both men’s and women’s basketball. The winner of that tournament will be the undisputed conference champion and receive an automatic bid into the NCAA playoffs.

The rule is a slight change from the former three-team tournament, where the regular season top team got a bye and played the winner of the game between the second and third place finishers.

Asked why the conference doesn’t employ a full conference tournament rather than just the top four teams, Northwest Conference commissioner Matt Newman primarily pointed to financial reasons.

“There could be a team at the bottom of the league that has no chance to advance, but they have to incur some additional cost,” Newman said.

Newman also mentioned that he felt the full double round-robin schedule separated the good teams from the bad well enough without a larger tournament.

As it is now, the addition of just one more team in the tournament adds just one more game to the conference’s costs and gives more teams a chance at getting to the NCAA playoffs, especially on the women’s side.

The current selection process leaves spots for 41 automatic bids out of a maximum 64-team field. The other 23 spots are given to teams who have outstanding records against other division III schools outside of their conference. The East however, has many more teams than Whitman’s west region.

“Back east, a division III school never has to play an NAIA,” said Ferenz. “We’ve always had a double edged sword because we’re not going to play a full DIII schedule, we can’t afford to, we can’t travel that much.”

Recently, that same selection process passed over this year’s men’s soccer team for an at-large bid, in part because they chose to play tougher Division II and NAIA schools in their pre-season.

A tournament would have given the men’s soccer team a chance at the automatic berth that got away from them as it gives the third and fourth seed in both the men’s and women’s basketball tournament a chance that they otherwise wouldn’t have. According to Ferenz, with a three-playoff system, the runner-up to the automatic qualifier was recently strong enough to make it as an at-large. Now with another team in the mix, the first two runner-ups might be able to earn at-large berths on their own.

If the season ended today, the women’s team would be in the playoffs as the third seed, while the men would fall two games short of the fourth and final seed. Last year, the women finished fourth, which put them a spot out of the playoffs at that time.

It’s been four seasons since a Whitman basketball team has made the postseason and the Whitman women would very much like to end that drought.

“We’re a really close team so it would mean a lot to us to make it to that point together,” said women’s captain Michelle Krall.
The four games left on the schedule will determine if that dream comes true.