The Fifth Lap
The Conference USA volleyball tournament, the first of its kind since 2009, returns today in Tulsa, and with it, volleyball rejoins basketball, baseball and soccer as sports that determine the conference's automatic NCAA berth through a tournament. And though this tradition may seem strange, it had become so ubiquitous that it felt even stranger when volleyball did not follow it.
Still, if the system were to be designed from scratch by a group that somehow separated from it the influences of the past and of professional athletics, this system would seem odd indeed.
The emphasis on playoffs is in many ways a very American tradition. European soccer leagues provide a rigid separation between their league titles and tournament titles. For example, in the British Premier League, the Football Association Challenge Cup, the country's tournament, actually finishes before the league has been decided. The league championship is decided separately and is based solely on a team's finish at the top of the table.
For a time, professional football in the United States was the same way. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, league championships were determined strictly by end-of-season standings until 1933, when the league was divided into two divisions.
So the question persists, here in regard to volleyball: After playing a full season of matches, is a single-elimination tournament, with all of its accompanying randomness, really the best way to determine a champion and, perhaps more consequentially, an NCAA berth?
The answer depends on one's perspective and objective.
A tournament or playoff is simply not the fairest system to determine the best team or the most deserving team. It is hard to argue that the result of one weekend at a neutral location should supersede the performance of a team that performed night after night throughout a grueling season.
This past women's soccer season provides a case in point. Was the University of Central Florida really more deserving than Rice or Colorado College of C-USA's automatic NCAA bid when both finished ahead of it in the conference standings?
However, the tournament system does provide the season with added levels of intrigue. For one, it keeps postseason dreams alive for more teams throughout the entire season. Instead of facing an anti-climactic league finish in which the winner is largely predetermined, teams continue jockeying for entry or seed in the tournament until the final game. And once in, any team and its fans can thrive off the potential excitement of a magical run. This weekend Rice volleyball, the No. 2 seed, has just as good a chance as Houston, the No. 7 seed, to punch its ticket to the big dance.
If the powers that be are committed to the tournament system and all the excitement and benefits it brings, there is a strong case to follow the model currently implemented by tennis. In C-USA tennis, the only required conference play is the conference tournament. Teams are able to schedule their own regular-season matches however they would like, and seeds are determined strictly on national rank.
This system provides the opportunities for regular-season schedules that are more meaningful and more financially viable. Teams would no longer have over half of their games locked in, including trips across the country. Instead, teams could instead play more regional rivals that are less expensive from a travel perspective, less taxing for student athletes and more compelling for fans. Essentially, Rice could trade its trips to The University of West Virginia and East Carolina University for drives to Waco and College Station.
For now, it is time to welcome back the tournament. A whole season has been played to seed it. For better or worse, everyone's dreams are now in the tournament's hands.
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