From page 21 of the 2018 Division I Men's & Women's Tennis Pre-Championships Manual: "Teams must have at least a .500 record versus Division I institutions to be considered for an at-large berth."
Why - In General
This is the real question. Given that we have a ranking system that takes into account who you have beaten to determine which team is better than another, why do we need this rule? However, even though I question the need for this rule, getting rid of this rule alone does not solve all the issues, but more on that later. I know we have the same kind of rule in football where teams struggle to be .500 to be able to go to a bowl and there are lots of reasons you may or may not agree with it. Football and basketball have even more at play as they are revenue generating sports where tennis is not. I think the biggest argument for this rule would be that if the power conference teams never schedule any of the smaller schools then they don't even get a chance to win bigger matches to move up in the rankings. However, I don't buy that argument in college tennis as points are given out all the way down the list and you can still work your way up the rankings by beating teams ranked in the 70-100 area. As you move up, the other teams in the same relative ranking position will want to play you to earn points and you will eventually work your way up to getting any matches you want if you are good enough.
Why - Tennessee State perspective
As I said at the top, I have spoken personally with Coach Monroe and AD Phillips at Tennessee State to make sure I got my questions answered and not jump to any assumptions. They were very gracious in reaching out to me after I contacted them and spoke very openly about the whole situation. I asked what was ok to divulge and they said everything that I asked about the situation was fine. They were very positive and upbeat about the whole thing and were glad to have had the opportunity. Here is a brief synopsis of the Q&A followed by some general observations of mine based on our conversation. Again, this is not word for word but my synopsis.
Q: First and foremost, did the girls know about this and did they want to play? (This was my biggest question)
A: Yes and yes. The girls don't get the opportunity to play that caliber of talent very often and the thought of getting to play a bunch of matches against SEC schools was exciting for them.
Q: How did this all come about?
A: We spoke to the Arkansas staff over the weekend and they were looking to schedule three or four matches with us if possible and then find another team to play another couple with to give them their six. On Saturday they reached back out to us and said they were unable to find another team to play and wanted to know if we would agree to six. Before agreeing or answering Coach Monroe had to consult with his team and management at TSU.
Q: Were you compensated? (This was my second biggest question and I made sure to ask if they were ok with the answer being published, and no I did not ask how much as I don't really think it's any of my business or all that relevant)
A: Yes. Not only were we compensated but 100% of the proceeds went back into the tennis program so it was really a great benefit for the program. And "into the program" does not mean coaches salaries, etc. it will go to benefit the players.
Q: How did it play out?
A: First of all we played clinch so it wasn't like every girl was going to play six matches. We had seven girls and they rotated through. On top of that we took a two-hour break after every two matches. We even won some matches in there but more importantly it gave the girls exposure to that kind of competition that they really wanted and they loved it. It was great for them.
Now back to my own personal comments...
For all of you reading I never quite understood the masses that jumped on Tennessee State here. The primary concern should be about the girls and their safety, health and well-being. If the girls wanted to play then you can't really say that the coaches subjected the girls to something they didn't want. I was once a DIII player that got to play a DI school and had you let me have a bunch of cracks at it I would have taken it in a heartbeat so it doesn't surprise me at all that the girls would want to. Second, if you assume they will lose 4-0 every match and they play six times that's six doubles points and 18 singles matches. With seven girls that's 2-3 singles matches per girl, granted they play a lot of doubles. But again, if the girls wanted to play who are you to tell them that they shouldn't or that it's a mistake. They get the chance to play SEC girls and even bring in a little revenue for their program. Who knows, maybe that means better travel arrangements, more gear, etc. Whatever it is it's more than they had before. The only reason I can legitimately see would be if a physician said that one or more of the players should be limited in court time and in hindsight maybe that's a question I should have asked but I didn't. Bottom line here is that while you may not agree that someone should have played six times in a day I don't really think you can fault a willing and able Tennessee State team for taking full advantage of the opportunity.
Why - Arkansas Perspective
Well there is no secret here, Arkansas entered the day with a 10-16 record, 6 wins shy of a .500 record. At that point in time they still had not uploaded the Missouri and South Carolina wins yet so their uploaded matches showed an 8-16 record. The breakdown of that 8-16 record from CollegeTennisRanks.com looked as follows:
Look at those losses. Only one loss outside the top 50 (and that one was only #54), and 6 of the 16 losses to top 10 teams. Clearly they have played a very hard schedule and are victims of the brutally tough SEC. The point of the at-large bids is to get the best teams not awarded automatic bids, right? If so, then I'm not really sure what having a .500 record should have to do with it. Arkansas has beaten a top 10 team (South Carolina not pictured above), two more in the top 20 and two more ranked teams at #26 and #35. If we are really after putting the best teams in the nation in the at-large berths they are certainly deserving. Sure they could have scheduled their share of cupcakes to make sure they got in, but does that really benefit the girls. To illustrate what this might look like let's take a look at Alabama. Now I am not intending to pick on Alabama here but they are a good case on the other side of the coin. Alabama scheduled enough non-conference matches that they were likely to win to get into a good position to qualify for NCAA's should their ranking get them there. Just as I showed Arkansas above, here is the Alabama breakdown:
Now Alabama has no top 20 wins, and only two in the top 75. They are however NCAA eligible at 15-15. They are actually still counting 4 wins that are worth the minimum 4 points and currently sit at #52 which had them close to the bubble for a while but the lack of quality wins eventually did them in. However had they had just a couple more SEC wins they would be in. Would the fact that they played those 10 teams outside the top 125 really have made them a better choice than Arkansas? I think we all know the answer to that question is no. Playing 10 teams outside the top 125 with 7 of them outside the top 225 is not doing anything for anyone but adding wins to the total. Heck you might even make the argument that getting 6 of them in one day is better than Alabama taking up 6 different dates to get 11 matches in against the 10 aforementioned teams plus a #114 Western Kentucky. I honestly don't really care as I don't think either team should need to play that many matches against teams ranked that low just to get wins in.
But I've already come to the defense of Tennessee State so it must be Arkansas' fault right? Wrong! Arkansas is doing nothing more than playing by the rules that were laid out in front of them. It's not like they just saw the ball hit the line and then called it out, clearly cheating. They are simply taking advantage of a rule as best they can to gain entry into the NCAA Tournament. This is more akin to taking a bathroom break between sets when you clearly don't need to go to the bathroom but just need to cool off and try to change the momentum. Taking advantage of a rule in the rulebook. But this is even more on the up and up as when you take a bathroom break and don't need to you are still "lying", here you are just blatantly saying "hey, you said I need to win 6 more matches so I'm going to play 6 more matches". All the purists can claim ethics or whatever else they want but the bottom line is that Arkansas simply took advantage of the rules laid out before them.
The Solution - Part 1
So based on what I've presented so far, part of the solution would be to get rid of the Sub .500 rule. However, as I stated before that does not solve all the issues completely with the current system. I'm both the kind of guy that loves to find the loopholes in the system and the kind of guy that likes to fix things the right way. That means if you see other problems while you're in there fix them now, don't wait until someone complains about that too.
Now that we've got all that on the table, let's talk about another issue. We just saw that adding matches can help teams get to .500 but what if you aren't short on matches, you're just short on ranking. I'm going to offer up a perfect loophole scenario we are about to see this week. In their first match in the ACC Men's Tournament we have Louisville vs. Virginia. Currently both teams are out of the NCAA Tournament but the winner of this match should get in and send the loser home. Pretty steep consequences for one match. If you're playing in a poker tournament, bowling tournament or any other tournament where it's a cash prize and you're down to the final two and there is a big discrepancy between the first and second place check what happens? Well if both parties really don't want to settle for the second place check they just agree to split the money. Happens all the time. Well, the same thing could happen here. How you ask? Well, let's say that Louisville and Virginia agree to play a second match (on the same day if they happen to be bound by the number of dates they can play) and the team that lost in the ACC Tournament "magically wins". Now they both get a win over a 40 something team and they both make the tournament. Wow! Now granted this one goes a little beyond playing by the rules as someone may have to "lose on purpose", but they don't have to, they could just play it out and if the same team wins again then the loser is still out but if they split they are both in. Crazy as it sounds it's a very real possibility.
But let's move on from the sinister scenarios I'm dreaming up into even more heartbreaking realistic scenarios. Lets say I'm Middle Tennessee State and I'm the last team in on the bubble as it shows right now. Doesn't really matter who it is I'm just using them as an example. Now let's say that all the teams that can pass me have finished playing their conference tournaments and I'm in. Well at least I think I'm in because everything is done. What stops the teams sitting right behind them from deciding to play each other for a winner take all and entry into the tournament? There is absolutely nothing MTSU could do about it. Someone has to win that match and whoever wins is in, knocking MTSU out of the tournament.
The Solution - Part 2
The ITA should institute a rule that matches must be scheduled with and approved by the ITA with advance notice. They can determine what a legitimate timeframe is, maybe 4 weeks. Let schools create their schedules for the season in advance on their own, but once the season starts any added matches must be approved by the ITA. The ITA would be responsible for looking for situations like the ones I have mentioned and could then choose to deny them. Heck I'll be the committee if you like, as long as each request is published along with the decision so that everyone can see it is being done under the guise of fair play, much like the ITA rules for officiating.
Not only would this rule solve the team issue, but there are ways to game the singles and doubles system for entry into the NCAA Tournament that are very similar. Again, someone should look at these scenarios and approve or deny based on the reasons for adding the matches and ensure they are not last minute decisions that end up sacrificing another team or players chances at the NCAA Tournament that they can do nothing about.