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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why Don't NCAA Tennis Championships Produce Butlers and VCUs?

Like every other sports fan in the country, I've been captivated by this weekend's improbable runs to the NCAA Divison I Final Four by Butler and Virginia Commonwealth. Butler, a 8 seed, and Virginia Commonwealth, an 11 seed, were obviously not expected to be anywhere near Houston next weekend; Virginia Commonwealth was one of the teams required to win a "first round" game to make the final 64, but the Colonial Athletic Conference member has now taken out teams from the Pac-10, Big East, Big Ten, ACC and Big-12. College basketball experts like Jay Bilas of ESPN said after Selection Sunday that VCU had no business being in the tournament. Butler, although a finalist last year, lost its best player to the NBA, and the Horizon League is certainly not a conference that would attract much interest from blue chip recruits.

Although there are obviously differences between the two tournaments, the NCAA Division I Tennis Championships also has 64 schools (not 68 like basketball this year, but close enough) vying for the team title, but Cinderellas like these two (and CAA's George Mason in 2006) are rare to non-existent at the tennis championships in May.

Because I've only been following college tennis closely since 2005, my perspective isn't exactly historical, and even in recent years, there have been few "chalk" winners in tennis. The UCLA (2005), Pepperdine (2006), Georgia (2008) and Southern California (2009) men were not favorites going into the tournament, but their titles could hardly be deemed shocking. The women's champions have been less surprising in that span, primarily because perennial powerhouse Stanford has taken three of the six, although Georgia Tech (2007), UCLA (2008) and Duke (2009) were not the top seeds in their championship seasons. But excepting perhaps Pepperdine, a West Coast Conference school, all these champions are from major conferences, with strong tennis traditions (and Pepperdine certainly is on par with the others in that respect, regardless of their conference).

I went back to look at the list of men's NCAA champions and finalists to see if there had been such a Cinderella that I wasn't aware of, and lo and behold, the eye-opening finalist in 2000 is none other than Virginia Commonwealth. According to this article on the Stanford website, VCU was a 17-32 seed in the tournament, which isn't quite as impressive as an 11 seed in the basketball tournament (which equates to 41-44, since there are four of each number), but unprecedented in my limited experience.

In the women's list of champions, there's nothing comparable to that VCU appearance in the final.

Why are there so few Cinderellas in Division I college tennis? Why would there be more parity in basketball than in tennis? I welcome your thoughts. And please remember, you must use a name, not the anonymous option, to have your comment published.

18 comments:

Joey said...

While there aren't cinderella stories in the main NCAA tournament, the conference tournaments have surprises. I follow the women more, but last year alone, Georgia Tech, UCI and St. Mary's all claimed conference championships defeating higher-ranked/better teams on "paper"

It will be interesting to see what happens this year with conference tournaments, and the big NCAA event this year.

John r. said...

There are many reasons for this: first and foremost the smaller tennis programs have a shoestring budget. This hurts them tremendously in the recruiting process! Whereas even the smaller basketball schools have 100 times more resources than the tennis teams. Therefore it's rare that a top 100 tennis recruit would go to a school like VCU. Additionally in basketball one great player can lead your team deep in the NCAA tourney. Like Shelvin Mack at Butler. That's not the case in team tennis. Don't think you will see a Butler or VCU going to deep in tennis!

Stephen said...

One reason is that there is a smaller pool of top talent in tennis than basketball. Also, as someone already pointed out, one player can take over a basketball game, but in tennis they just get you one point.

B's Dad said...

Tennis isn't a team sport.

jb007 said...

That's not the case in team tennis. Don't think you will see a Butler or VCU going to deep in tennis!

Tyler said...

Butler and VCU have outworked the larger programs by developing 3 star and lower level 4 star recruits. There are few tennis programs willing to do the work to accomplish a similar run. Instead the pecking order is sign Blue Chips, Internationals and 5 stars then accomplished 4 stars. In basketball, VCU and Butler target potential and late bloomers, however their success may change who they can recruit. More money is invested in Men's college basketball compared to men's college tennis and suprisingly the same can now probably be said for women's college basketball versus women's college tennis. More money tends to lead to better and more engaged coaching, which leads to your Butlers and VCUs. Can anyone name a university which is a mid major where the coach has really developed some college tennis players beyond the success they had as prized junior players? My understanding is a player's development stops once they get to college unless you're at one of the top tennis universities. I know Andi Brandi was known as a coach who really developed players while at UF, that's not the current coaches reputation.

B's Dad said...

In team sports, the whole can be greater than individual parts -- players can pick up others who are down, and great "teamwork" can overcome other teams comprised of individual stars -- and I think that's why you see Cinderella performances. In college tennis, while doubles has at least a small "team" and playing for the team can be boosting, there is no comparison to true team sports -- tennis is six individuals playing six other individuals. No opportunity for "teamwork" and no opportunity for a Cinderella story.

Jon from PBG said...

There is a very deep pool of basketball talent. A smaller school can have lower academic standards and grab a few talented kids for their hoops program that don't have the grades for Duke. These talents are motivated to beat the better programs that rejected them. In basketball 2 talented and motivated kids can steal a game from the better teams.

David Johnson said...

Imagine if VCU had to compete with Kansas by playing 6 one-on-one games and 3 two-on-two games. Do you think the upset would be as likely?

There's your answer.

john said...

B's Dad is pretty much right. I would add one other related concept: In tennis you often need 4 "VCU def. Kansas" on one day in one match to produce an upset. While not always the case, the "underdog" in college tennis is not favored in any of individual matches. That makes it really tough to pull a true "upset".

PT14 said...

Another thing, it is much more difficult to develop lower-caliber players enough to catch up to the high-caliber players of top tier programs in tennis than in basketball. And again the team aspect is huge!

Austin said...

It's very simple, in tennis even if you have two or three guys are are the best players in the country you cant win no matter how good they play if your other players arent any good. I wish I had a better, more detailed explanation, but its pretty cut and dry, a couple players getting hot in tennis mean nothing if everyone else cant also step up and beat far superior players.

B's Dad said...

I'd hazard a guess that the closest comparison may be a team like Vanderbilt (men's), who this year recruited at least 4 top 100 kids. If they gel, train hard, push themselves to be better, and work together, over time you could see a huge improvement in their results.

wi tennis said...

Also, oddly enough, VCU and Butler have a coach that coaches the men's and women's teams! Many others do, too! Some coaches are part-time in the Horizon League, for example.

Even if a coach has one team and is full-time, they most likely don't have a full-time assistant. If the assistant is full-time, it's a 25,000 gig. You mostly find full-time, decently paid assistants at big-time programs. Also, many mid-majors are not fully funded with 4.5 or 8 scholarships. Just about all basketball teams are.

Definitely a bigger talent pool. More difficult to transfer. A player that plays great at a mid-major usually tries to go big-time. In basketball, they have to sit out a year.

wi tennis said...

Jon, Duke basketball can get whoever they want admitted. Maybe, Duke tennis might only get an exception here and there. It isn't the same standards as normal students.

Atlanta Roofing said...

Actually it’s the games played “on the field” over a 4 month period. It’s more transparent than some guys in a closed room deciding VCU gets in for unknown reason over an equally crappy team.

Atlanta Roofing said...

I’m perfectly happy with an occasional run by a VCU or Butler, or a title by a Villanova or Kansas, in exchange for all the excitement it brings with it.

collegefan said...

You need 5 players for a basketball game and 12 get full scholarships. In tennis, you need 6 with only 4.5 schollies. Would be interesting to compare if men's tennis offered more scholarships or at least as many as the girls get.