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Merrimack Basketball and the Shame of D-1 Transitions

March Madness will come and go and it will be fun, and cool, and all of the normal good stuff. There will be tournament darlings, upsets, and the 1 or 2 seed that goes down way too early, maybe even in the first round.

But there won’t be Merrimack, which is a damn shame. Caught in the crosshairs of a four-year D1 transition, they won the regular season NEC title but are not allowed to participate in any NCAA post-season tournament. They will most likely be relegated to the CBI or some other tournament that you didn’t know existed.

To be fair, they wouldn’t have necessarily made the tourney. They still would’ve had to win their post-season conference tournament (which they were also barred from competing in).

The reasoning being that there are a shit-ton of D1 teams in men’s basketball now (353 to be exact). To be punished for the fact that they’re letting in any team that can look competent in layup lines is an NCAA problem, not Merrimack’s. And why can’t the reverse be possible? What’s wrong with dropping down some underperforming teams? Oh, you haven’t had a winning season in 27 years? Ever heard of this thing called Division 2?

I realize that’s insane and doesn’t take into account the level of play but it wouldn’t hurt college football to look in the mirror as well. They’ve also experienced a similar influx of teams from D1-AA (I refuse to say “subdivision”) that weren’t even very good at their lower level of play. It used to be that the teams who moved up did so because they were ruthlessly destroying their opponents and winning national titles every year, but now you have middle-of-the-road teams moving up for some of that D-1 money to get spread their way.

But I don’t see why college basketball can’t make an exception for teams, even in a transitional period, to have a shot at the big dance. Shouldn’t it be preferred that the teams who move up are immediately competitive? Look at Appalachian State in football, another team that is a clear anomaly, piling up 10 and 11-win seasons in almost total silence, with very little buzz or hype in the rankings.

And of course playing in the Sun Belt doesn’t help, and the NEC may be the closest thing college basketball has to the Sun Belt, but college basketball is different. Everyone actually has a chance to play for a national championship by way of winning their conference.

Merrimack not only won their regular-season conference title, they also knocked off Northwestern on the road (not a traditional power, but still a Big 10 competitor with a clear talent discrepancy) en route to winning an unprecedented 20 games.

The Warriors would be the funnest team ever to watch in the tournament. Would they probably get smoked in the first round? It’s almost a certainty. But what if they didn’t? What if they made a tough day of it for some hoop factory like Kentucky or Kansas? Unlikely, but I’d be watching. True March Madness fans and casual fans alike would love the storyline of a Cinderella making the big dance in their first year in Division 1, a school with a few thousand students that I used to attend summer camp at and wouldn’t have even been able to give you a straight answer if you had asked me if their players could dunk.

As much as I understand the rule, the NCAA had to foresee situations like this playing out and frankly they should dream of these scenarios. If a team isn’t competitive the probationary period makes all the sense in the world; see if they can really hack it out with the big boys amidst the brutal travel schedule that is D1 basketball. But if they thrive they should have the chance to play for the ultimate crown, not for a tournament run by a website that most people, myself included, didn’t even know existed a few years ago.

Also — how much of a slap in the face is it that they draw the line at the NIT? The NCAA basically stood on a table and said we bar you from post-season competition! Nay…. We bar you from legitimate post-season competition! You can play in it with the other teams that we didn’t know were in D-1 in front of sparser crowds than the powerhouses get for regular season games.

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