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On the wing: Success shows how unnecessary transition period is

By: Aidan Joly, Editor-in-Chief

On Friday at 12:40 p.m., Jacksonville State, a 15 seed in the NCAA tournament, will face second-seeded Auburn.

You should have nothing against the Gamecocks. They had a great season, finishing 13–3 in league play, good enough to win the regular season title.

The thing is, they didn’t win the conference tournament.

That honor went to Bellarmine, a small private school located in Louisville. The thing is, Bellarmine is not eligible to play in the NCAA tournament because the program is in its second year at the Division I level and is in the NCAA’s four-year transition program to become a full Division I member.

This was how it happened. Jacksonville State lost in the conference semifinals to Jacksonville, who then lost to Bellarmine in the final. Because it won the regular season title, Jacksonville State was given the auto bid in this scenario.

Last year’s Atlantic Sun final had a similar scenario. North Alabama made the final while in the transition period, but lost to Liberty anyway. On the women’s side, California Baptist’s women’s program went undefeated in Western Athletic Conference play and won the tournament but was ineligible for the same reason. Before that, Merrimack — located in North Andover, Mass. — won the Northeast Conference regular season title in 2019-20 in its first year at the Division I level, but the team was not even allowed to play in the conference tournament (before the onset of COVID-19 shut down the season, of course).

The NCAA also ruled that Bellarmine is ineligible for the NIT.

I don’t understand what we’re doing here.

Sure, making the transition to become a Division I school is no small task. It requires years of planning, moving money around and support. Scholarships are a big part of this; at Division II and III schools, they can offer partial scholarships, but in basketball, schools must offer full scholarships, 13 on a men’s team. The idea behind this is to allow older, partial-scholarship players to graduate. But if the NCAA had a uniform scholarship policy, this would not be an issue, thus reducing the need for a transition period.

Any school that is prepared to go to Division I should be fully prepared to do so. Like I said, this is something that takes years to plan; it’s not something a school president and athletic director just wake up one day and decide to do.

Of course, most schools in this situation struggle in their first few years at the new level. Such is life when you move up to a new level. Think of it like an expansion team in professional sports: most of the time, they struggle in their first few years. But sometimes, they surprise everyone and do well and are encouraged to take advantage of being in the playoffs and having a chance to compete for a championship. Bellarmine was obviously never going to be a national championship contender, but for a small school like that, simply having the chance to play in the NCAA tournament is enough. Schools that are granted admission to Division I typically have very successful Division II teams, so they should have the opportunity to play at the highest possible level.

Another thing — how do you sell your school to student-athletes? “Hey, come play for us, but you won’t have an opportunity to play on the biggest stage in the sport.”

Money and scholarships are not something to be figured out while a school is in transition. When schools get permission to move up, the NCAA needs to allow them to be full members.

No need for a transition period.

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