October 16, 2015

Best Conference, Part II: Numbers and Beyond

By Ryan Harmanis

Ranking the Conferences Over the Last Ten Years

Welcome back. With most teams fully into the conference slate, I’m going to continue evaluating the top Division III conferences to try to figure out which one is the best. We left off by looking at some data and focusing on the following factors: (1) NCAA Appearances and Wins; (2) Winning Percentage; (3) Average Finish in NCAA Appearances; (4) NCAA Bracket Pool Scoring Systems. In Part I of this series, we looked back five years. Now we have data from the last ten seasons, which I’ve compiled for the top 11 conferences:

Based on the data alone, it seems like we can put to bed whether the NESCAC is the best conference, followed (alphabetically) by the Commonwealth, IIAC, NCAC, NJAC, and UAA. I don’t put much stock in the Commonwealth over the past decade aside from Messiah, as one team does not make a conference. And the UAA and NJAC have been, on average, much deeper than the NCAC and (I assume) the IIAC. So with that in mind, I’d rank the best conferences of the last decade as follows:

Best Conferences (2005 - 2014)

(2) NJAC
(3) UAA
(4) NCAC
(5) Commonwealth
(6) IIAC

Quantitative and Qualitative Measures

The nice thing about the data is that it creates a clear separation between the top conferences—in this case, eleven of them—and everyone else. And we have even more of a division between the top five or six and everyone else. The only real difference is whether we measure conference strength by number of bids—in which case the UAA has a great claim to the upper echelon—or if we rely on success, in which case the Commonwealth dominates and the UAA struggles (with the second-lowest winning percentage in this whole group).

But, as Mark Twain said, there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Yes, Messiah has all those titles, but does that really mean the Commonwealth is the best conference? Surely not, because the conference has received only two at-large bids—both by Messiah—in the last decade. In a similar vein, I don’t think the UAA is either the best (most bids) or the worst (very low winning percentage). So here are some qualitative factors I think matter in terms of conference strength:

(i) Depth – How often are multiple teams capable of winning the conference? How good are the mid- or low-tier teams in the conference?

(ii) Transferability – If you took the best team from one conference and dropped them into another, how would they fare? Would OWU or Messiah win the NESCAC on a regular basis, or would they just be part of the group that takes turns winning and making NCAA runs over the years?

(iii) Hypothetical Matchups – How do the best teams from each conference match up? If we took the top three or four teams from each conference, and played a Ryder-Cup style knockout tournament to determine the best conference, who would win?

(iv) Coaching – While good coaching can usually be seen in the record, it helps the entire conference to have quality coaching. It improves the overall strength of the league and encourages other schools to hire better coaches.

(v) Random Factors – Are teams required to travel an excessive amount (UAA)? Does the conference have a specific style of play that makes it more difficult for other teams to adjust? How does the conference award its NCAA bid—which can really matter in some conferences.

Next week, I’ll wrap it all together. Do the qualitative considerations change anything? What weight should we put on the fact that a conference is top-heavy? In answering those questions, I’ll rank the top conferences for the 2015 season, take a look at the championship races, and try to predict what impact conference strength will have come Selection Monday.

Ryan’s Boxscore Top 10

After a one-week hiatus, the best teams are beginning to separate themselves, and consistency is the hardest thing to come by. Kudos to those at the top, because teams 7 through 30 are almost interchangeable.

1. Amherst (1-0-0, D3soccer.com No. 2) – Right now, the Lord Jeffs are the most dominant team in Division III. They have a five-point lead (and a game in hand) in the NESCAC, and they’ve only given up two goals all season. Despite deep runs and stellar regular seasons, Amherst hasn’t been to the Final Four since 2008. Is this the year they return?

2. Brandeis (11-1-1, No. 4) – You can’t knock the results, as Brandeis probably has the best collection of wins in the country. On the flip side, just how many 1-0 games can the Judges pull off? They’ve already won seven 1-0 games, and three more 2-1 decisions. At some point, I’m guessing it’s going to catch up to them and they’re going to drop a tight one. If you’re a Brandeis fan, you just hope that comes in UAA play and not during the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

3. Franklin and Marshall (12-0-0, No. 1) – The Diplomats just keep chugging along, adding two more shutout wins in the last two weeks. Like Amherst, they have a stellar defensive record, with only 4 goals conceded. However, things are about to get much, much more difficult; F&M’s remaining games feature the best the Centennial has to offer, so we’ll have a better view on them next week. The win over Elizabethtown remains a feather in the cap, but F&M needs to prove they’re the best team in the Centennial before I’m willing to say they’re the best team in the country.

4. Calvin (13-0-1, No. 6) – At this point, I’m not going to continue docking Calvin for its weak out-of-conference schedule. The Knights are pummeling the MIAA, and they’ve proven in the past that they have a program built to go deep come tourney time. The interesting thing will be to see how much the NCAA regional committee respects a team that may be undefeated but also may have no wins over ranked teams.

5. Whitworth (10-0-1, No. 8) – The Pirates picked up their first blemish in a 1-1 draw with George Fox (6-6-3), but that doesn’t shed a ton of light on this team. Despite the outcome, they doubled up on shots on goal (16-8) and had an astounding 14-0 corner kick advantage. Whitworth has a five-point advantage towards an NCAA bid, so we might have to wait until the tournament to see them truly tested again.

6. Kenyon (10-1-0, No. 5) – The Lords dropped a tough one to DePauw, but it highlights the difficulty Kenyon sometimes has scoring against top-level competition in the past. The bright side is that (1) Kenyon controlled the match, confirming that the talent is there; and (2) Tony Amolo notched another game-winner against Oberlin in midweek. Kenyon now gets reeling Denison (9-1-2, No. 16) at home in a must-win game for both teams – Kenyon if it wants to win the NCAC, and Denison if it wants to stay in the running for an at-large NCAA berth.

7. Thomas More (11-1-1, No. 13) – This marks the gap in the Top Ten, in my opinion. The top six are separated, but the remaining teams all earn their spots here for one reason or another. I give Thomas More major credit for upping the schedule. The Saints went 2-1-1 against Case Western (9-2-1, 3-2 win), Denison (9-1-2, 0-1 loss), OWU (10-2-2, 5-1 win), and DePauw (9-1-2, No. 17, 2-2 draw), which is pretty impressive. Assuming they make the tournament, Thomas More shouldn’t fear anyone in the Great Lakes region.

8. Trinity (Texas) (11-2-0, No. 8) – Trinity had a rough weekend a month ago, dropping two straight, but the Tigers avenged both losses last week and have posted six straight shutouts. Add in that early win over Brandeis, which is the best win on just about anyone’s resume right now, and Trinity is back in the mix for a deep NCAA run.

9. Eastern (12-0-1, No. 14) – Some solid wins (Lycoming, 10-1-2, 1-0 win) and only a single draw earn Eastern a spot here. I have some concerns, but this is a results-oriented ranking system, and it’s hard to argue with what the Eagles are doing right now. The question going forward will be whether Eastern can garner an at-large bid even if it drops the Freedom Conference to King’s (11-2-1) or another upstart team. Right now, they’re on the right track.

10. Elizabethtown (12-1-1, No. 11) – The only blemishes are a 4-2 loss at Franklin and Marshall and a 0-0 deadlock at Alvernia (6-3-5). Aside from that, the Blue Jays have been perfect, including a huge win over archrivals Messiah. Yes, the Falcons are down, but if there was any game you’d expect D-III’s resident superpower to show up it was against Elizabethtown, and the Blue Jays took care of business. I don’t know if they can go head-to-head with the upper echelon, but Elizabethtown hasn’t given me any reason to doubt them. They barely beat out Christopher Newport (10-0-4, No. 9), who is one of the few remaining unbeatens but has no strong wins.

Trending Up: Plattsburg State, DePauw, Kean, Haverford

Trending Down: RPI, Messiah, Rutgers-Camden, Denison


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 D3soccer.com in 2013. He combines an analytical background with a passion for writing and the game of soccer. [see full bio]

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