Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Glance at the NEWMAC

The New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) is one of the nation’s most prestigious academic conferences and the league has continued to make strides to position itself as one of the best NCAA Division III athletic groupings as well. Although the league is more clearly renowned for its academic muscle (MIT is one of the best undergraduate universities in the world, four schools are rated among the top 100 colleges in the country, and the entire membership is comprised of Tier 1 institutions), the NEWMAC continues to mature in both the classroom and on the court.

It would be remiss to not acknowledge the fact that the NEWMAC has yet to procure an NCAA champion and that the league’s Final Four appearances are scant. However, the conference has shown stability and marked improvement while steadily defying the NCAA odds despite a small contingent. There are seven schools participating in men’s basketball, and those teams have combined for 46 NCAA tournament appearances. The NEWMAC has earned a Pool C bid in five of the last six seasons, giving the league a recent stranglehold on a precious at-large berth. On most occasions, earning a second NCAA tournament bid has come at the expense of the league’s top team, but it also reinforces the competitiveness of the conference and the right amount of talent and luck needed to persevere through the regular-season slate. According to the Massey Ratings, the NEWMAC had the highest parity of any basketball conference in the nation in 2008 and 2009, while in 2007 Coast Guard won the postseason title despite finishing in last place during the regular season with a 2-10 record.

Clark University has been the league’s best postseason performer with 15 invitations to the NCAA Championship Tournament. The Cougars made consecutive trips to the Elite 8 early in the decade while Clark and Williams are the only New England programs to play in the NCAA Division III National Championship game multiple times.

WPI and MIT have been late bloomers in terms of national success, although those programs have served as the NEWMAC elite for the last several years. Before this season, WPI had secured five consecutive bids to the NCAA’s where it won five games and made one appearance in the Sweet 16. MIT has qualified for the last two championships, including an at-large berth in 2010. In addition, MIT has benefitted from unprecedented individual success. Although the Engineers didn’t garner any All-American honors in the first 103 years of the program, MIT has boasted three All-Americans in the last six years including the 2009 National Player of the Year.

Regarded as the “birthplace of basketball,” Springfield College has only recently been a member of the Division III community. The Pride earned 11 bids to the NCAA Division II Championship before making the transition to Division III, where they have made five NCAA tournaments in 13 years. Springfield has won nine tournament games, advancing to the Sweet 16 early in the decade.

Babson College has made five NCAA tournaments since the mid-90s, including an appearance in the Sweet 16 in 2001 as well as a second round game in 2004. The Beavers also won the ECAC Championship in 2002. Wheaton College, which began its program in 1989-90, captured ECAC Championships in back-to-back seasons from 2004-06.

The U.S. Coast Guard Academy has qualified for the NCAA Division III Championship on three occasions, and while its improbable run to the conference crown in 2007 was memorable, the following year the Bears flirted with a Final Four berth before enduring an overtime loss in the Elite 8.

Supporters of the conference understand that a national championship is all the prevents the NEWMAC from consideration as one of the best basketball leagues in Division III, but with 5 of its 7 teams garnering Sweet 16 appearances in the last nine years, just advancing through the challenging conference season is often an achievement in itself. As the league continues to stockpile young talent and the tumultuous road through the league prepares its teams for the rigors of postseason play, the realization of the national championship trophy residing with a NEWMAC school shouldn’t be a matter of if, but when.