Traveling is the right call

Events like the Hoopsville Classic make it possible for Southern Vermont to play St. Thomas in November.
Photo by Eric Kelley, 

By Ryan Scott 

Sitting courtside as Lynchburg battled back from down 13 to tie the penultimate Hoopsville Classic contest against Stevens Point with four minutes to go was a thrilling experience. It had all the drama of an NCAA Tournament game, complete with vocal cheering sections, coaches slamming clipboards, and players throwing themselves across the floor for loose balls. We had two well-known teams from different regions, playing vastly different styles, who might not otherwise face each other outside of Salem. It was November. The season was just five days old.

Whether they realized it or not, this is what the committee created when they added the 70% rule. In short, before the change, games with non-region opponents didn’t count towards a team’s postseason consideration unless the committee got way down the tiebreakers.

“The old rule really limited who you could play and who you ought to schedule. To have the flexibility and autonomy to play teams from around the country is good both in terms of seeing different teams and styles of play, but also to take our players to different parts of the country and incorporate educational experiences,” says John Tauer, coach of the defending national champion St. Thomas Tommies, who opened their championship season at last year's Hoopsville Classic in Owings Mills, Md.

St. Thomas saw Southern Vermont and Emory in that tournament, providing on the court experience, but also a significant strength of schedule boost that made their Pool C selection an open-and-shut case when they lost the MIAC championship game to St. Olaf.

We are now seeing a proliferation of such multi-regional tournaments. Some are tournaments in attractive destinations sponsored by sports travel companies, like the Classic in Las Vegas, sponsored by SportTours International. Others are campus-based events, like the Hoopsville Classic or the inaugural Great Lakes Invitational scheduled for next season at Marietta.

With so many opportunities to travel, it’s actually becoming more difficult for teams to fill out traditional four-team, on campus tournaments. Pat Manning, the women’s coach at Williams says, “We’re flooded with opportunities. Teams are choosing destination tournaments and passing up on traditional tip-off tournaments. It’s fun to take your team some place totally different, a place they might have never seen.”

Marietta men’s coach Jon VanderWal noticed the same trend, “Ryan Whitnable, a Marietta alum, came to me with the idea of starting a Great Lakes challenge. I told him he was crazy. I couldn’t get three teams to come to our Shrine tournament; I can’t imagine you can get seven teams to come here. It only took three or four weeks and he had six teams signed up. We’re from a small community that really supports us, so the whole town is excited for the event.”

You seem to need either a big event like the Hoopsville Classic where Stevenson deploys dozens of student ambassadors and event staff to create an NCAA Tournament-like atmosphere, or you need a really attractive destination. Often those are warm weather, vacation locales in the dead of winter, but there are other draws as well. Staten Island has hosted a New Year’s Tournament of Heroes for many years. This year’s line-up is full of big names, with Bridgewater (Va.), Middlebury, and Illinois Wesleyan making the trip.

CSI head coach Tony Petosi: “We try to bring the best teams that we can outside of the area. We’ve always gotten a lot of interest. I’d love to move it earlier in the year, but schools love to bring their kids to New York for New Year’s Eve. We’ve got high-profile programs and, even when they’re better than us, they make us better.”

That echoes universally what coaches told me about their choice to travel: it prepares the team for conference and NCAA Tournament play. Shirley Egner of the Stevens Point women sums it up well, “We get away. We spend time together. The players have to learn those things that come with taking a road trip. Because of the way our conference schedule is, we’re not used to having overnights.”

Many of the schools in Division III are small, often with tight budgets. Travel can seem like a luxury beyond their means. Many schools try to plan one trip during the four years most players are on the team and, while some athletic departments have the resources to invest, most raise the money themselves.

Egner adds, “We do a big trip every other year, because we don’t want to put a financial burden on our players. We do fundraising, but the players are responsible to cover the balance of the trip.”

At some schools like Babson, travel has become less of a priority. “Five or six years ago we used to travel a lot,” says men’s coach Stephen Brennan, “There’s a lot of fundraising involved. It was really expensive and a lot of our guys did a lot of travelling in AAU.” The Beavers still try to schedule overnight trips to prepare for postseason eventualities, but, being in New England, they don’t have to travel far to find great competition.

Still, the travel experience is more than just an on-the-court endeavor. Babson is taking a trip to Chicago over the holidays. “We have an alum, Chris McMahon,” says Brennan, “He’s out of Chicago and he helps us pay for the trip so our guys can get to know his city and it’s a great way to support our program.”

St. Thomas got to witness the U.S. House of Representatives in session last year. This year, on an early season trip to Seattle, they toured Microsoft and met with Seahawks general manager John Schneider, who’s an alum. Tauer added, “It’s about finding ways to integrate the student athlete experience where we’re playing good teams, but also doing something that’s meaningful and memorable for our players.”

“It’s so good for Division III,” says Stevens Point men’s coach, Bob Semling, “It’s so good for our players and our program, for those young men to have those experiences. Rather than playing in a tip-off tournament in Wisconsin, to get out and see other programs, even for us as a staff to meet other coaches. We all have so much in common.”

That is certainly one of the mantras of Division III basketball. Despite the disparity in enrollment, endowment, and educational philosophy, these 400-plus schools are committed to putting students first within the context of their athletic programs. Coaches and players, some of whom could certainly have made different choices, picked Division III because of its core values.

This rule change, on the surface, looked like an athletic move – to help teams with SOS or make a difference in the selection process – but in reality it help broaden the landscape of D3 for so many schools and ultimately bring together what have historically been disparate regions. I have enjoyed my opportunity to be around the Hoopsville Classic; I’m looking forward to visiting Marietta next season. My hope is that we can continue to support and expand these opportunities for young women and men to expand their horizons, both athletically and academically.

It also wouldn’t hurt to have more of those dramatic, heart-pounding, pivotal moments when games are won or lost. The very chance we might experience one is why so many of us became basketball fans in the first place. Teams getting out of their own backyards and engaging new experiences only increases the opportunity for more people to catch the spirit that makes D3hoops so great.

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Ryan Scot

Ryan Scott serves as the lead columnist for and previously wrote the Mid-Atlantic Around the Region column in 2015 and 2016. He's a long-time D-III basketball supporter and former player currently residing in Middletown, Del., where he serves as a work-at-home dad, doing freelance writing and editing projects. He has written for multiple publications across a wide spectrum of topics. Ryan is a graduate of Eastern Nazarene College.
Previous columnists:
2014-16: Rob Knox
2010-13: Brian Falzarano
2010: Marcus Fitzsimmons
2008-2010: Evans Clinchy
Before 2008: Mark Simon