For those who do not know, Bellarmine University is a small Catholic university in Louisville, Kentucky, that is aiming to have a role in the promotion of college basketball. Over the past few years there has been a growing concern about expansion of Division I supports into wider and wider amounts of schools, who seek promotion and funding for their universities through joining conferences and shooting for television contracts and the like. I have at times written about these phenomena, though it is by no means a usual focus of mine. As someone who is interested in sports, as well as in the role of sports on general culture and history, these sorts of stories are a reminder that there are ripple effects to the way that money and attention are coming to privileged schools. When some people get a lot more money and a lot more cultural power, a lot more people, including small Catholic schools, want to get involved in this process.
As one might imagine, the NCAA is not generally fond of letting more people get pieces of the pie when it comes to money and attention and they have been generally hostile to the expansion of Division I to larger and larger spheres of people, all of whom can claim shares of television contracts and the like. One of the ways that the NCAA has sought to discourage universities from making the leap into low-major Division I from lower divisions is through a very lengthy probationary process that prohibits these universities from winning spots into bowl games and postseason tournaments until several years of transitioning into Division I occurs. According to the NCAA, this is so that such programs may demonstrate a commitment to winning, but as is usual per the NCAA, this justification is full of it and is rather a dodge to avoid competition and to try to discourage even more of it, rather than dealing with the root causes of why it is that so many universities want to expand in order to profit from a growing athletic budget in higher level sports as a whole.
A case in point is the aforementioned Bellarmine University. This small university, a relatively new entrant into D-I basketball, recently won the conference tournament for the Atlantic Sun conference over Jacksonville, and was awarded for its excellence with being told that because it won a spot into the NCAA tournament that it was not eligible for, that its spot was being given to the regular season champion, who could not even make it out of the semifinals. In other words, according to the august wisdom of the NCAA, a conference championship that has an unacceptable result can simply be wiped into nonexistence and the preferred candidate can be given its spot to face some sort of much more massive school in the round of 64 of the tournament proper and aim for the upset there.
It should be noted that, for all of its recency into D-I basketball, that Bellarmine has demonstrated its commitment to athletic excellence on the low major level. Its tournament win was no fluke. In the regular season, Bellarmine had an 11-5 record within the Atlantic Sun conference, good enough for 4th place overall and second place in its division behind conference leader Jacksonville State. It had the fifth-best record in basketball overall in its conference at 19-13, with wins against Central Michigan and at Miami (OH) in its nonconference schedule as well as playing a tough slate of schools that included Gonzaga, UCLA, Purdue, West Virginia, Murray State, and St. Mary’s. Its tough nonconference slate and decent conference schedule clearly prepared it for its conference tournament run against the top 3 teams of the eastern division of the Atlantic Sun and demonstrate pretty clearly a commitment to athletic excellence. Bellarmine wasn’t out there beating up on the little sisters of the weak here. They were playing some of the best teams in the country and winning enough of those games to deserve a spot in the NCAA tournament.
From what I have read online, the students and fans of Bellarmine seem content to celebrate their conference win without the expectation of reaching the NCAA Tournament this year. However unjust the rules involving reclassification that have denied it a spot in the big dance, what they seem to be aiming at is something that strikes me as eminently reasonable. What they are proposing is that in the future, if a university proves its commitment to athletic excellence by winning a conference title, that its probation be waived as a result of its proven results. This seems pretty sensible to me, and can allow the NCAA to put up or shut up–do you want to reward obviously successful teams or simply try to act like a cartel to protect more established programs and pay lip service to such things as excellence. We all know which way the NCAA tends to go, but it’s worth allowing them to prove that their ideals are more than mere lip service from time to time, as is the case here.