AUBURN, Ala. – Cal’s reward for a six-win campaign and No. 4 national ranking: a flight to Sugar Grove, Ill.
That’s 2,000 miles and two time zones away; the regional field there features three teams playing in their own backyard; and the host site, Rich Harvest Farms, is the most difficult of the six regional venues. Oh, and second-round play was suspended Friday because of snow.
Hey, congrats on the great year!
“I’m not overly excited about it,” Golden Bears coach Steve Desimone said last week when the regional assignments were announced.
Nor should he be.
Recent changes in college golf have made the regular season important – teams must have a won-lost record above .500 to be eligible for postseason play – but that fact seems to be forgotten come postseason time.
Under the current system, there is no real advantage to being the top seed at regionals. This year alone, the top six seeds traveled a total of 4,670 (!) miles to reach their regional sites.
What’s wrong with zero?
Playing at home is not a new NCAA concept – that’s what happens for regionals in baseball, tennis, softball, soccer and volleyball. It’s simple: The top teams in the country, regardless of geographical region, host the postseason qualifiers. That process rightfully rewards the schools that played the best throughout the regular season, not the ones that submitted bids a few years ago.
This week, Auburn, Missouri and Oregon each are playing regional tournaments on their home course. College coaches dread heading there, and for good reason. Entering the week they figure they’re playing for two fewer spots: The top seed almost always advances, and a coach also has to assume that the host team will finish inside the top 5 on its home track. So, essentially, the other 11 or 12 teams are fighting for three spots.
This becomes a fairness issue when you consider that this year, Auburn (23), Missouri (46) and Oregon (40) each are ranked outside the top 20. Had they been sent to a neutral regional, they might not advance to the 30-team NCAA Championship.
Instead – and no surprise – all three teams are inside the all-important top 5 after the first round of their respective regional. Come Saturday, it seems likely that, based on regular-season performance, a more deserving team will be left out.
Above all, the regionals should be set up to ensure that the best teams have the best opportunity to reach nationals. Now, though, the biggest advantage a team can have is to host a regional.
Some will contend that it’s too quick of a turnaround for teams to host regionals at home, but it’s not an insurmountable problem. Though the top six ranked teams in the country aren’t known officially until early May, there is little fluctuation in the rankings among the top 10. By March 1, maybe earlier, those teams would have a clear idea whether they’re in line for a regional.
Schools will still have to scramble a few weeks ahead of the event to make sure that their home course is up to championship standards, but the groundwork was set back in December, when the paperwork was submitted. The onus then would be on the bidder and host institution, not the NCAA, to get tournament-ready. Each major university has the infrastructure (an event manager) to handle these exact situations, and the school also receives a $20,000 stipend to host.
Having regionals at home also offers a rare opportunity for those schools to showcase one of their best teams. Though a regional tournament never draws a huge gallery, playing on their own college campus would give staff, supporters, boosters, friends and family reason to turn out. By week’s end, that might total 500 spectators.
Instead, top-ranked Alabama traveled 160 miles here to rival Auburn, and only a few mothers made the trip. After stellar regular seasons, the Crimson Tide have earned a No. 1 seed in six of the past seven years, and in that time they have headed to Columbus (Ohio), Chicago (Illinois), Indianapolis (Indiana), Athens (Georgia), Baton Rouge (Louisiana) and Auburn (Alabama). Some advantage.
Not that they’ll get much sympathy from Cal, of course.
As the boys from Berkeley lace up their snowshoes, their six-win regular season suddenly doesn’t seem so important.