The Moutain Pacific Sports Federation men's volleyball playoffs kick off this week when USC travels to Cal State Northridge. Over the next two weeks, the nation's power conference of men's collegiate volleyball will battle for two spots in the NCAA Final Four tournament in Ohio. The two other spots in the Final Four will go to the winners of the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association and the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association. Sounds far, right?
Not even close.
The four best teams never make it to the Final Four in men's volleyball. Not ever. Never. Each year the winners of the MPSF, EIVA and MIVA get an automatic bid with one at-large team added in the mix. That one wild card is always the next best team in the MPSF (okay, technically the rules say it's to go to the next best team in the nation, but that team will still be found in the MPSF). It's the strongest conference in any sport in the entire country. Since men's volleyball became an NCAA sport in 1970, 37 national champions have been crowned; all but two came from the MPSF or its predecessor conferences.
(See results from 1970-2006 NCAA men's volleyball championships)
To give half of the Final Four to teams that have NO chance at a national championship is a disservice to the sport of volleyball. The NCAA should revise the format for qualifying for a shot at a national title in order to secure the most competitive match ups, not to make everyone happy.
The MPSF should have an opportunity for three teams to make the Final Four. The winner of the conference tournament will get the automatic bid. The MPSF tournament runner-up should be strongly considered for the second bid, and the best regular season team not to make the conference finals could earn the third berth.
The fourth spot in the national championship tournament would go to the winner of a play-in match between the champions of the EIVA and MIVA. These teams may never be labeled "wild cards" in the Final Four, but anyone who follows volleyball knows it's a great upset when the winner of one of these conferences advances past an MPSF team into the championship game.
A championship tournament play-in match between the winners of the EIVA and MIVA frees up space for another great volleyball program to compete for a national title.
This season Pepperdine is virtually guaranteed a spot in the NCAA tournament (they haven't lost since January). The "at-large bid" - which code for "second-best MPSF team" - will go to either BYU or UC Irvine, unless an MPSF bottom-feeder wins the conference tournament. If that's the case, one stellar program will be forced to watch the championships at home while two lesser-deserving programs play a farce of a match against a top west-coast program.
(Penn State, the best team in the EIVA went undefeated in their conference this season, but lost seven of eight non-conference matches, most to west-coast programs)
It's up to the NCAA. Do they want competitive volleyball, or do they want everyone to be happy? By trying to make everyone happy, they are in actuality ruffling the feathers of west coast volleyball.