NCAA qualifications: multiple paths to a single goal

As any college coach will tell you, making the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament and winning an NCAA title are the ultimate goals for many college sports teams. But the way that NCAA qualification works varies from sport to sport. There are many questions about qualification – who gets to participate, whether a team has to win its conference in order to compete in the NCAAs, how the NCAAs work for more individual sports – and answers are not always easy to come by.

The NCAA tournament for team-oriented sports such as basketball is typically straightforward. In the majority of conferences, the conference champion advances automatically to NCAAs upon claiming its title. There are four sections of the NCAA bracket that are considered sub-brackets and are divided by region. The winner of each sub-bracket this year will head to Salem, Virginia for the Final Four after three rounds of elimination play.

Williams men’s basketball (27-1), which has been dominant throughout the year, did not leave their post-season aspirations to chance. By winning the NESCAC tournament, the Ephs took the most direct route to NCAA qualification, and in the process earned themselves one of the top seeds in the NCAA tournament and a coveted first-round bye. The Ephs were the only team to go undefeated in their region in the country, which helped them earn the No. 1 seed within their sub-bracket. Their status as the No. 1 seed earned the team the right to host in the second round, and the team will again host this weekend as a result of its seeding, though regional location sometimes plays into the location of later round games.

Meanwhile, teams without conferences and in conferences which do not receive automatic NCAA bids can make the tournament in what is called a “Pool B” bid. The number of “Pool B” teams varies from sport to sport, depending on the number of teams which fit the “Pool B” description in that sport – for example, there are two “Pool B” teams for men’s basketball and none for women’s basketball – and the selected teams are chosen based on the quality of their season.

Finally, there are what is commonly known as at-large bids, formally called “Pool C” bids. These tournament slots are awarded to the teams which the committee feels have played the best throughout the year, with regional play given particular weight. Women’s basketball fell to Bates in the NESCAC second round Feb. 20, but was given a “Pool C” bid due to their 18-7 record against a very difficult schedule. Although the Ephs were not ranked in the top 25 nationally, the NCAA committee decided that the team’s play this season was strong enough to earn the Ephs with one of 21 women’s “Pool C” bids. There is a similar process for the men, except that only 19 “Pool C” bids are awarded.

The tournament-field selection system used in basketball, with a combination of conference winners and at-large bids, appears all across the NCAA in team sports. Howver, the number of at-large bids varies from sport to sport. There are only three, for example, in men’s ice hockey, while there are 19 in women’s soccer. The disparity stems from differing sizes of tournament fields and differing numbers of conferences from sport to sport.
Wrestling, as a sport centered on individuals, uses a different NCAA qualification structure. “To qualify for the NCAA Championships you need to win your regional tournament,” said Dan Dicenzo, head coach for the Eph wrestlers. “There are nine regional [or] conference tournaments. If you do not win, you can get a wild card entry to the tournament. For example, the New England Wrestling Association, our conference, sends the 10 conference champions and four wild cards.”

According to DiCenzo, the tournament format at NCAAs is a 16-24-man bracket and is double elimination. Individual wrestlers earn points for each round they win, and the team with the highest number of points is crowned national champion. Malo, Paulish and Breitenstein finished the regular season ranked second, fifth and 10th nationally in their respective weight classes. Malo finished second in this year’s tournament.

Swimming and track and field have among the most complex qualification systems for NCAA championship. As with wrestling, stellar individual performances can add up to a team championship. However, their individual qualification systems differ starkly from that of wrestling.

In both swimming and track and field, an individual can qualify for NCAAs in any event during the season. An individual swimmer qualifies for the NCAAs by swimming below a certain “cut” time in any event.

In swimming, there are typically 19 to 20 individual slots or 11 relay slots in an event. Swimming an ‘A’ cut time at any point throughout the season automatically qualifies an athlete to swim that event at NCAAs; however, this mark is set at quite a high level, and the field typically does not fill with swimmers with ‘A’ cut times. The rest of the field is filled with swimmers who finish with ‘B’ cut times. A swimmer with a ‘B’ cut time therefore may or may not compete in the national championships. For this reason, the number of ‘B’ cut qualifying swimmers who actually race at NCAAs varies from year to year, and competition on the ‘B’ cut list is fierce.

“The final selection time usually ends up being somewhere in between the ‘A’ cut and the ‘B’ cut time,” Steve Kuster, head coach of men’s and women’s swimming, said. “For swimmers who are invited on relays only, if they have swum a ‘B’ cut time [in a different event] then they can swim that individual event at NCAAs.”

Instead of ‘A’ and ‘B’ cuts, track and field has AQ and PQ standards. “An automatic-qualifying standard (AQ) and a provisional-qualifying standard (PQ) for each event in track and field are set at the beginning of each year, only varying slightly from year-to-year,” said Mitchell Baker, assistant coach for track and field. “If an athlete records a jump, throw, time or point total that surpasses the AQ, an invitation to the NCAA Championships is assured.” A very small number of competitors reach the AQ, according to Baker, and the field is then filled out with athletes that have met the PQ.
In both swimming and track and field, a team’s final finish at NCAAs is based on the combined scoring performances of its athletes. In swimming, the top 16 finishers in any given race receive points: Team points are the sum of any and all individual point earnings. For track and field, the top eight finishers claim points that add up to a team score.

Varied selection processes notwithstanding, teams from the College have found tremendous success in the NCAA tournament. In Div. III, the pinnacle of such success is the Directors Cup, which is awarded to the Div. III school that shows the best performance in NCAAs across all of its teams. The College has won the Directors Cup for 11 consecutive years and 13 of 14 years that the trophy has been awarded. This year, teams are continuing the College’s run of success: The Ephs led the Directors Cup standings after the fall behind a Final Four run from men’s soccer and a second-place national finish from cross country, and the winter teams’ successes are sure to stretch that lead.

Additional reporting by Matthew Piltch, executive editor.

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