September 25, 2015

Best conference? Tackling the great debate.

By Ryan Harmanis

Conference Strength: How Do We Decide?

Which conference is the best? More importantly, how do we decide? With conference play about to heat up, I’m going to start a multi-week series to determine the strongest conference(s) in Division III soccer.

Conventional wisdom says the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) has been the best conference in recent seasons. It has the reigning champion (Tufts), it’s had a team reach the Final Four in four of the last five seasons, and it regularly puts 3-4 teams in the NCAA tournament. But what about the University Athletic Association (UAA)? It also puts several teams in every year, and in most seasons (including 2014) every single team in the conference has a winning record. Or maybe you think championships are the best indicator – does that make the Commonwealth Conference top dog because Messiah has won seven of the last ten titles?

Conference strength matters because it impacts NCAA tournament bids. If the other teams in your conference have a good record, it increases your strength-of-schedule, which is a big component for the NCAA committee. Perception matters as well, because NCAA bids are often given out based on region and conference strength. I personally believe there have been times in recent seasons where teams have gotten into the NCAA tournament with inferior resumes simply because they were affiliated with a certain conference.

Honestly, I don’t think there’s any pure way to determine this sort of thing. Conferences, just like college teams, change drastically from year to year. I’d say the best conferences so far this year have been (in alphabetical order): CAC, Centennial, IIAC, Liberty League, NCAC, NESCAC, NEWMAC, NJAC, SUNYAC, UAA. But I’ll save my conference rankings for later on in the season. For now, I have a few ideas on ways to rank conferences, using data compiled from the last five NCAA tournaments (2010-2014):*

(1) NCAA Appearances and Wins. This speaks to the depth of a conference. Almost every conference automatically gets one team into the tournament, so a conference with multiple NCAA teams has enough quality to earn at-large bids. Simple and easy – tally the appearances and wins.

(2) Winning Percentage. Instead of counting wins, count win percentage. It doesn’t take into account the number of NCAA teams a conference has, but it can measure their quality.

(3) Average Finish. Considering the limited amount of data, I think this might be the best indicator from the NCAA tournament. In the past five years, what’s the average finish for a team from that conference? That is, how far do teams from that conference usually go?

(4) Bracket Scoring Systems. Now for a little fun. Let’s pretend we’re scoring each conference like we do NCAA basketball brackets. This system doesn’t overly favor deeper conferences (with more teams) or top-heavy conferences (with just one powerhouse). The normal (ESPN) scoring system gives 1 point for a first-round win, 2 for second, 4 for Sweet 16, 8 for Elite Eight, 16 for Final Four, and 32 for winning the championship. I used three variations: 1-2-4-8-16-32, 1-2-4-6-8-12, and 1-2-3-4-5-6.

It’s a small data set, but here are the results I found:**

* For simplicity, I counted advancing to the next round in the NCAA tournament as a win, even if it via penalty kicks or a bye. I also used teams’ current conference affiliations.

** To qualify, a conference needed to have at least two at-large bids or a Final Four team in the last five seasons.

Some Quick Observations (More to Come Next Week):

● Messiah props up the Commonwealth – the conference only has one other NCAA participant in the last five years.

● The UAA is very, very deep, and since 2010 every single team in the conference has made the NCAA tournament at least once. However, the UAA also hasn’t sent anyone to the Final Four since NYU in 2006.

● The conferences at the top, aside from the Commonwealth, tend to have one Final Four-caliber team plus support: NESCAC (Tufts, Amherst, Williams), NCAC (OWU, Kenyon), NJAC (Rutgers-Camden, Montclair State), IIAC (Loras, Wartburg, Luther

● The SCAC, despite having Trinity (Texas), failed to even make the cut because nobody else has managed to snag an at-large bid and Trinity hasn’t made the Final Four since 2007.

Ryan’s Boxscore Top 10

I honestly don't know what to do with the bottom half of the Top 10. I was mostly joking when I suggested nobody has stepped up as a favorite, but the results in the last week have just confirmed that 2015 is as wide open as Division III has been in years. Consider this Top 10 very, very fluid, and expect to see new names here next week.

1. Tufts (5-0-0, No. 1) – Finally, the voters wise up and agree with me. Showdown with Brandeis tomorrow will be a good test for the defending champs.

2. Kenyon (7-0-0, No. 2) – The Lords continue to take care of business. Comfortable game this weekend but a very dangerous Case Western squad looms next Wednesday.

3. Franklin and Marshall (8-0-0, No. 3) – Solid (if unspectacular) wins from the Diplomats in the last week. The conference seems top heavy, so it will be interesting to see if F&M or Gettysburg blinks first before their late-October showdown.

4. RPI (7-0-0, No. 9) – That win over Oneonta looks even better after Oneonta beat Montclair State. I’m very impressed with RPI so far – can they take advantage of some sloppiness from St. Lawrence in the Liberty League?

5. Amherst (5-0-0, No. 6) – Say what you will about the Lord Jeffs’ style of play, they defend well and get results. Amherst is matching Tufts stride-for-stride and has yet to concede on the season.

6. Whitworth (6-0-0, No. 11) – The Pirates remain perfect, which is more than the majority of the Top 25 can say after last week. After last year’s impressive run – I thought they looked great in the NCAA tournament – it will be interesting to see how Whitworth handles tough matchups with Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran this weekend.

7. Brandeis (6-1-0, No. 7) – Brandeis benefits from doing absolutely nothing. If the Judges really deserve this spot, they’ll have to earn it against Tufts on Saturday.

8. Denison (7-0-0, No. 15) – Welcome to the Big Red, whose 1-0 win at Thomas More looks more impressive by the game. Denison can secure a top-10 spot and get an early leg up in the crowded NCAC if they beat OWU for the first time since 2009. I expect my alma mater to provide a good test of Denison’s credentials.

9. Rutgers-Camden (7-1-1, No. 24) – The NJAC looks very, very strong this year, with the top seven teams a combined 50-9-3. Camden is my pick of the bunch right now, and if Mike Ryan (11 goals) keeps banging in goals I think the Raptors can make a deep run.

10. Calvin (7-0-1, No. 21) – The only thing keeping Calvin from a perfect record is a goalless draw on opening day. Since then, the Knights have reeled off seven straight and have only conceded twice. The MIAA’s odd double-round-robin season (fourteen conference games) might put Calvin out of sight, out of mind, but I have a feeling they’ll be waiting for someone in November.

Trending Up: Thomas More, Case Western, Rowan, Wabash

Trending Down: Trinity (Texas), Eastern Connecticut, Salisbury, Elizabethtown


Comments or feedback for the author? E-mail Ryan Harmanis.

Ryan's Ruminations


Ryan's Ruminations will go beyond the box scores to offer analysis and opinion on major storylines around the country.  Ryan will provide in-depth analysis of the current season and insight into important aspects of Division III soccer, augmented by fun and compelling stories about players, coaches, teams, and games.



Ryan Harmanis

Ryan Harmanis played for Ohio Wesleyan from 2007 to 2010 where he was a three-year captain. Following graduation, Ryan continued to follow the D-III landscape before joining in 2013. He combines an analytical background with a passion for writing and the game of soccer. [see full bio]

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