• Nathan Max

Bad Rule Blocks Cal Baptist NCAA Berth

Photo Credit: Chase Stevens/AP. Cal Baptist rolled past Grand Canyon, 78-60, to win the WAC Tournament title.

The only undefeated team in Division I women’s college basketball will not be participating when March Madness begins this weekend thanks to yet another antiquated NCAA rule that penalizes student-athletes for no logical reason.

Western Athletic Conference champion California Baptist University has posted a perfect 24-0 record this season. But the Lancers won’t be hitting the hardwood with the likes of No. 1 seeds UConn, Stanford, NC State or South Carolina, because they committed the crime of getting too good, too quickly.

Cal Baptist’s basketball programs are not eligible for NCAA championship postseason play until 2023, since the school is in the middle of a four-year transition period. The probationary term is required for all institutions that upgrade their athletic departments from Division II to Division I. Cal Baptist’s postseason ban applies to all 18 sports it offers, from baseball to water polo.

Instead of sending its best team to the dance, the WAC will be represented by Utah Valley University. The decidedly less formidable Wolverines (13-6, 10-4 WAC) qualified based on their second-place regular-season finish. Cal Baptist beat Utah Valley by 29 and 9 points respectively when the teams met on Jan. 8 and Jan. 9, further highlighting the injustice of the situation.

This arcane rule currently applies to seven schools transitioning from Division II to Division I. Bellarmine, Dixie State, Merrimack, North Alabama, Tarleton State and UC San Diego are also ineligible to participate in postseason NCAA championship competition until they complete their transition periods. Had North Alabama’s men’s team upset Liberty in the Atlantic Sun Conference championship game last weekend, it would have been denied a place in the field of 68 for the same reason.

It is unclear why this edict exists and who benefits from it. Denying athletes a chance at competing for a national championship doesn’t serve their best interest or the best interest of the NCAA.

Granted, there are certain administrative benchmarks the NCAA mandates transitioning institutions meet, but that should have no bearing on the students. Schools in the probationary period schedule non-conference and conference games just like any other Division I program. If the athletes are talented enough to carry a team to a national title, that achievement should be celebrated, not stifled. Give them a chance.

The entire reason March Madness has become so popular is because of the Cinderella element.

America loves it when a plucky mid-major school comes out of nowhere and makes a deep run. It’s what gives the tournament its charm. What could possibly personify March Madness more than the participation of an unbeaten outsider in just its third season of Division I competition? Cal Baptist’s women have rightfully earned their shot at taking on college basketball’s best, and a curious nation would like to know how well they stack up.

This rule robs fans of a chance to root for a truly spectacular underdog story. Even worse, it robs the athletes of an opportunity they deserve. Utah Valley doesn’t belong in this year’s women’s tournament. Cal Baptist does.

But wait. There’s more.

The most bizarre aspect of this unnecessarily punitive rule is that it doesn’t prevent Cal Baptist from participating in other postseason college basketball tournaments. The Lancers’ men’s team played in the College Basketball Invitational in 2019.

This year’s women, denied their rightful place in the NCAA Tournament, will still be permitted to continue their season in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament. So, Cal Baptist is eligible to win the WAC Tournament, it is eligible to win the WNIT, but it is ineligible to win the national championship. There is no rhyme or reason to this rule. It defies common sense.

From amateurism, to name, image and likeness rights, to transfer rules, the NCAA has a long history of clinging to onerous, outdated, obsolete measures, all of which unfairly punish players.

This is just the latest glaring example.