Around the Nation
Tournaments give D-III a national feel
|In order to win a national title, a team from Virginia might well need to beat a team from Wisconsin, and there's no better way to prep for postseason play than by seeking out that same competition in the regular season.
Christopher Newport athletics photo by Benjamin Leistensnider
By Ryan Scott
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Christopher Newport junior Jason Aigner, pulled up at halfcourt — maybe a step behind normal range for one of the best long-distance shooters in Division III — down three, the buzzer looming.
Aigner’s three looked good the whole way, but was just a few inches off, disappointing the home crowd and CNU’s raucous and popular pep band, who were one of the highlights of last year’s Final Four.
The winner, UW-Stevens Point, far from home on Thanksgiving weekend.
“I wish more teams could do this,” says Pointers men’s basketball coach Bob Semling, “to play a more national schedule. It’s expensive and it’s not easy to do, but it’s great for the fans and it’s great for our level.”
This win wrapped up a 2-0 weekend for the four-time national champion Pointers, who came back from 15-plus point deficits in both halves of a narrow win over Wilmington the day before. Texas-Dallas was the fourth team at the CNU Invitational – one of three tournaments the Captains will host this season – four teams from four different regions. Texas-Dallas and UW-Stevens Point didn’t play each other because the Pointers are already scheduled to visit Dallas later in the year.
It was a thrilling, playoff-level game, something we’re seeing far more of in Division III during the regular season than ever before. The truth is, if it had been a decade earlier, there’s virtually no chance the game would’ve even happened.
It used to be that only games against teams within the same region counted for regional rankings. This was meant to protect those schools without the resources to travel, like St. Thomas – whose women went to Texas to open the season against perennial tournament teams ETBU and Trinity, and whose men routinely get on planes to play tough competition with their five non-conference slots.
The definition of what counted as “regional” games expanded over time, including a geographic radius (for those regions packed closely together or teams along borders between regions), adding games against adjacent sport-specific regions, and eventually NCAA administrative regions as well. Finally, it was decided that as long as 70% of a team’s games were played against “regional” opponents, all Division III games would count towards regional rankings.
When those games were just secondary selection criteria, there was no real justification for the expense. A generous tournament host, with local hotel connections, may be able to provide lodging and help defray the cost of meals and travel, but it’s a small percentage of a trip that could very well equal the travel budget for an entire season at some schools.
“It’s a really great opportunity for our program to play against elite level blue-bloods of Division III,” says Wilmington coach KC Hunt. “We want to develop the habits we need to be a winning team.”
“We felt it was necessary for us to play in this environment to see where we stood,” said Texas-Dallas coach Terry Butterfield. “Our guys needed to see what a national ball club looks like if we’re going to get there. We’re going to have to work harder.”
There was no talent gap between the Comets and the host Captains, even without All-American Demetrious Underwood, who is likely out for the season recovering from wrist surgery. Still, you could see the difference in focus, execution, and experience compared to the CNU squad coming off a Final Four run.
Texas-Dallas bounced back well from the opening loss and played significantly better against Wilmington, having gained valuable experience they’ll need in the ASC and beyond, if their aspirations are to be realized.
Even perennial contenders like Stevens Point understand the value of these games. “We start five seniors,” says Semling. “But none of these guys have been in this position before. We have to learn to compete and practice at this level. You want to play the best, because that’s how you get better.
Christopher Newport has had to get creative recently as departures from the Capital Athletic Conference left head coach John Krikorian with 15 non-conference games to schedule. “We’ve typically hosted two tournaments and this year was our turn to host a rotating Classic we’ve recently started with Mary Washington, Lynchburg, and Randolph.”
It’s a big commitment from the athletic department to host a tournament at the level CNU offers, especially on a holiday weekend when many students are away. “We’re fortunate,” says Krikorian, “We have so many staff and facilities people willing to step up and do the work required to make it one of the best weekends in Division III.”
CNU does its best to simulate an NCAA Tournament weekend — media timeouts, scheduling, practice and walk-through availability. Krikorian even worked with CAC assigner, Tim Ebersole, to have the very best officials on hand.
Says Ebersole: “Six of the eight officials here this weekend will be on my list of recommendations for the NCAA Tournament. This weekend gives the national coordinator of officials a chance to see these guys working together in high caliber games with teams from different regions. It will either bump them up or knock them down.”
This is a continuation of the trend started by the Hoopsville Classic, organized by D3hoops.com’s own Dave McHugh and hosted by Stevenson for a number of years. That brought a diverse group of eight schools to one location for high quality games and national exposure.
It’s continued with the Great Lakes Invitational, spearheaded by Ryan Whitnable, that aims to match up four teams from around the country with Great Lakes Region opponents (the 2020 lineup won’t be announced until the 2019 edition in late December, but I received a sneak peek and there’s a real chance they could have four or more Top 10 teams participating next year).
I believe these tournaments can and will continue to proliferate, both for the competitive reasons already explored, but also for the educational opportunities they bring. Stevens Point took an extra day to tour American colonial sites near Newport News, Hoopsville Classic participants often got to meet elected officials and tour Washington, D.C. Travel helps expose players to parts of the country they might not otherwise get to discover.
There’s also an eye on the future. Adds Krikorian: “We’ve talked a lot about what it would take to host [men’s and women’s] tournaments on the same weekend and I think you’ll see that in the future. We want to show [the NCAA] the men and women can run it together and have it be a great experience for all the athletes, so maybe in the future no one will have to sacrifice a hosting opportunity they’ve earned.”
We’ve seen the NCAA open up regional criteria that’s allowed for more national competition and exposure and it’s been done in ways that don’t penalize teams who can travel. Perhaps these tournaments will help spark the imagination of championship and basketball committees to explore further new ways of expanding the game.
Ryan Scott serves as the lead columnist for D3hoops.com and previously wrote the Mid-Atlantic Around the Region column in 2015 and 2016. He's a long-time D-III basketball supporter and former player currently residing in Middletown, Del., where he serves as a work-at-home dad, doing freelance writing and editing projects. He has written for multiple publications across a wide spectrum of topics. Ryan is a graduate of Eastern Nazarene College.
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