Jaffe: Puny men’s volleyball tournament shouldn’t exclude teams like Stanford

April 30, 2012, 1:46 a.m.

Every March, dozens of college basketball teams wait anxiously for a selection committee to decide their postseason fate. Coaches go on television making their team’s case, resumes are compared in hundreds of different ways and the word “bubble” gets thrown around approximately 12,000 times per second. Months and months of hard work get boiled down to a few numbers and the opinions of a group of old men in a room on one Sunday afternoon, leaving several good teams left outside the Big Dance. And there’s nothing the players can do about it.

Compared to men’s volleyball, though, basketball players have a cakewalk.

Imagine being a team that dominates throughout the season, ranking as high as No. 1 while finishing in a close second in by far the best conference in the nation. In your conference tournament, you come inches away from winning, eventually blowing a lead to the No. 2 team in the country in the tournament final. Still, as the No. 3 team in the nation, what’s to worry about?

In basketball or nearly any other collegiate sport, there wouldn’t be a worry, as your only question would be about seeding in the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately for the players on the Stanford men’s volleyball team, their sport doesn’t work like that.

Nope. In the mind-boggling world of NCAA men’s volleyball, a No. 3 national ranking, a 22-7 record and second-place finishes in both the regular season and tournament in the crazy-good Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) gets you nothing more than a seat on the couch for the rest of the postseason.

That’s because the NCAA tournament is nothing more than the Final Four, which includes automatic qualifiers from the three big conferences in the country: the MPSF, the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (EIVA) and the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA). This leaves room for exactly one at-large team. No, not the 37 at-large teams of men’s basketball. One.

It makes some sense…in theory. The sport of men’s volleyball is on a much smaller scale than men’s basketball. Instead of the 340 teams in Division I men’s basketball, Division I men’s volleyball has just 30, so its tournament must obviously be smaller. But trying to scale it all the way down to four is just ludicrous. More than that, it’s unfair.

Volleyball is one of the few sports where the men’s game has yet to catch up to the women’s game. There are over 10 times as many women’s teams as men’s teams in Division I, and only recently has men’s volleyball begun to pick up steam as a big-time college sport.

This has caused many of the tall, athletic kids in middle and high school to start choosing volleyball, even though the sport is still underrepresented at the college level.

This inequity between the number of great players and the number of available teams means that several volleyball teams are unbelievably stacked. The top six or seven teams have so much talent that they beat up on each other constantly. The winner of one match — or even one set — seems to have virtually no advantage when the next meeting rolls around, which is why so many teams come back from 2-0 deficits to win in five. Using one or two head-to-head matchups to distinguish between so many qualified teams is extremely difficult, and it’s flat-out ludicrous when the committee can only choose one at-large team.

I know that the idea in men’s volleyball is to have conference tournaments act as play-ins for the Final Four, but that just cannot work when one conference is so much better than the others. When 10 of the top 12 teams in the country come from the MPSF, which they do seemingly every year (including 2012), then you can’t tell me everyone has an equal chance to make the Final Four.

Stanford has many of the best players in the country, including the best libero ever (Erik Shoji) and many of the school’s all-time greats, such as Brad Lawson, Evan Barry and Gus Ellis. Few teams, if any, can match the athleticism and entertainment value of the Cardinal. Robbing the nation of seeing this team compete against the best opponents in the nation for all the marbles is unfair and unfortunate. Robbing this team of the chance to accomplish its goals and win the national title is just flat-out wrong.

Get it together, NCAA. Make a men’s volleyball tournament where all the best teams can compete for a title.

All Jacob Jaffe wants for Christmas is an at-large bid to the NCAA men’s volleyball tournament. Help his holidays come early at jwjaffe “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @Jacob_Jaffe.

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