SHERIDAN — March has arrived, meaning college basketball takes center stage. Bracket breakdowns, Final Four contenders and potential Cinderellas weave their way into family’s, friend’s and co-worker’s conversations as the Big Dance plays a prominent role in many fans’ lives.
And similar to NCAA Division I, the National Junior College Athletic Association also has a tournament to determine a national champion. However, where the NCAA Tournament encompasses 68 of the country’s best basketball squads, the NJCAA Tournament only invites 24.
Sheridan College head men’s basketball coach Matt Hammer believes the two dozen national tournament invitees — just 11.8 percent of 204 Division I NJCAA teams — is an appropriate number.
“I think with the resources we have at this level and the man power we have with the NJCAA, I think they do a great job,” he said. “I think it’s about as good as it can get. I can’t really think of too many better ways.”
Both tournament fields reward conferences — and in the NJCAA’s case, regions — with an automatic bid given to the team that wins each postseason conference or region tournament. NCAA has 32 conferences, each gifted with an automatic bid. The NJCAA gives out 16 automatic bids to 22 regions as a few of the smaller regions combine come region tournament time.
That leaves a number of at-large bids at the NCAA level and NJCAA level up for grabs for teams that fail to acquire an automatic bid.
However, the NJCAA Tournament is a bit more inclusive. Where the NCAA Tournament awards 36 at-large bids — 52.9 percent of its national tournament bracket — the NJCAA Tournament only allots eight at-large tickets, 33.3 percent of its national tournament bracket.
The number of at-large teams at the NJCAA Tournament increased this season from years past. For the previous two years, the NJCAA had four of those eight at-large selections given to zone qualifiers from predetermined regions.
This year’s selection-format change is one that Hammer, who’s in his fourth season with the Generals, prefers.
“I think that’s the way it should be,” he said. “You should reward the next eight best teams that weren’t able to win their tournament and didn’t get in. If you want the best teams in the country at the national tournament, this is the best way to do it.”
That couldn’t have been more true last season when all four at-large selections advanced to the national semifinals.
Many of the at-large selections at the NCAA Tournament are given to teams that most assuredly know they are getting invited before it’s made official by the committee on Selection Sunday.
But a fraction of those at-larges go to teams that reside squarely on ‘the bubble.’ A bubble team is a club that didn’t win its conference tournament championship (its automatic bid) and is banking on its body of work to gain inclusion into the national tournament. Strength of schedule, quality wins and bad losses all make up a team’s at-large profile.
Since the NJCAA only awards eight at-large teams, the bubble shrinks considerably.
No. 16 Sheridan College sits squarely on the bubble after falling to Western Nebraska in the semifinals of the Region IX Tournament Friday night.
The Generals have an at-large body of work worthy of national tournament consideration, and it starts with the strength of Region IX. Only Region VIII — the Florida JUCOs — boasted more ranked teams in the final NJCAA standings than Region IX. Region VIII laid claim to four ranked teams while Region IX had three — No. 15 Otero Junior College, No. 16 Sheridan and No. 25 Gillette College. Only Region VI — the Kansas JUCOs — had as many ranked teams as Region IX in the final rankings.
However, recent history shows the committee leans toward Florida and Kansas for at-larges. Regions VI and VIII have gobbled up half of the at-large selections the past two seasons.
That’s a trend that Sheridan College first-year women’s head coach Ryan Davis — who has coached at both the men’s and women’s NJCAA level — has seen time and time again.
“There’s a geographical bias if you’re looking at it from the fact that (Region IX) doesn’t get as many bids. That’s just the truth,” Davis said. “I don’t know if it’s intentional. I think it’s hard geographically to get up here and see (Region IX). … I think they just need to give (Region IX) teams a closer and harder look.”
Gillette College’s men’s basketball team has proven the strength of Region IX, advancing to the National Tournament’s second round last season and the semifinals two seasons ago. But even in those years, Region IX only received one at-large bid.
Region IX encompasses 17 teams and eight of those squads won at least 20 games this season, making for a deep, strong region.
“Our region is a bear,” Hammer said.
And whether that bear can produce two NJCAA Tournament teams, one at-large, remains to be seen. Sheridan College owns wins over two ranked teams — Otero and Gillette — and two of the Generals’ five losses have come with a shorthanded roster.
It has been a special year for Sheridan. The Generals held a spot in the top 25 for a majority of the season and cut down the nets at the Bruce Hoffman Golden Dome after claiming the Region IX North regular-season crown.
But Sheridan hopes there are still memories to be made, and that will come down to whether or not its body of work warrants an at-large NJCAA Tournament bid.