Pacific, Not UCLA, in as At-Large Team for 2019 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament

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Pacific's Luke Pavillard and UCLA's Adam Wright — seen in 2017 — will not be meeting at this year's NCAA tournament. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Sunday saw a whirlwind of activity in pools across the country, as championships were decided in the nation’s varsity water polo conferences. But, the most contentious decision for the 2019 polo season — which teams would receive at-large berths — was resolved outside the water. In a web-update posted after midnight on the East Coast, the 2019 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament bracket was released.

2019-NCAAThat the draw for this postseason did not contain UCLA for the first time since 2013 was in itself cause for speculation among polo loyalists. The Bruins were national champions as recently as 2017 and, like their Pac-12 brethren Cal, Stanford and USC — known simply as “The Big Four” — have enjoyed unparalleled success in NCAAs, winning eleven titles.

But, it’s what the bracket did contain that raised eyebrows. University of Pacific (UOP), a program that presented the last serious threat to a two-decade Big Four stranglehold on the national title, became the first non-Pac-12 team since 1997 to earn an at-large berth. The Tigers, who are hosting the tournament for the first time in program history, lost twice last weekend, like the Bruins. But Pacific was awarded the second seed — and a clear path to a national championship final. UCLA, which lost four of its last five, will stay home.

Adding more insult to their injured pride, arch-rival USC, who beat the Bruins on Sunday, was the recipient of the other at-large bid.

That web posting extended a season-long trend away from norms reinforced since that 1997 campaign, which saw Pepperdine as the last non-Pac-12 team to win a national championship.

Forces within and without conspire to shape this year’s draw

A new tournament exclusively for Division III programs announced last summer impacted this year’s NCAA tournament. The inaugural Collegiate Championship will not only take place over the same weekend as the national championship, it’s removing one of the combatants from the NCAA roster. Whittier, the winner of the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC), will host this new tournament. The final four group will also include SCIAC runner-up Claremont-Mudd-Scripps as well as Eastern schools Johns Hopkins and MIT.

[Johns Hopkins Wins DIII Eastern Championship; Will Join MIT in First-Ever DIII Collegiate Championship]

With the SCIAC forfeiting its berth, five automatic and two at-large bids were up for grabs this season instead of the usual eight. The five conference winners advancing to NCAA were decide Sunday: Bucknell, the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference (MAWPC); Harvard, which completed an unbeaten run to the Northeast Water Polo Conference (NWPC); Pepperdine, a winner in the Golden Coast Conference final; top-seeded Stanford, who beat Cal for the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) title and UC Davis, which cruised to the Western Water Polo Association (WWPA) title.

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UCLA senior Alex Wolf will miss NCAAs for 1st time. Photo Courtesy: Minette Rubin

Not so clear was who would capture the two at-large bids, a change from years past when only members of the Big Four advanced without winning a conference title. Even when only four teams qualified for NCAAs, the lone at-large bid almost always went to the MPSF tournament runner-up.

But 2019 has seen higher levels of competition outside the Pac-12. Between them, Pacific and UC Santa Barbara — members of the Golden Coast Conference — have seven wins against Big Four opponents. For the first time in program history, the Gauchos briefly reigned as the nation’s top team. Pacific, which in 2013 succumbed in overtime to USC in the NCAA title match, has trended at third or fourth in national polls for almost the entire season.

Despite losing both matches in GCC tournament play, the Tigers were rewarded with a featured role, gaining a bye into the semifinals of the tournament they will host at the Chris Kjeldsen Pool from December 7 and 8.

The other at-large team is USC. Defending national champions, the Trojans lost in the semifinal round of the MPSF tournament, but recovered on Sunday to beat UCLA for the second time in three weeks, knocking the Bruins out of the NCAA picture.

NCAA polo bracket 2019

The bracket as configured has MPSF foes USC and Stanford as likely semifinal opponents instead of meeting in the finals. This is a change from Pac-12 dominance every year since that 2013 final, when Pacific had a shot at breaking a streak that dates back to Pepperdine’s finals win over USC more than 20 years ago.

The only other time this century that a non-Pac-12 team made the final is 2000, when UC San Diego advanced, only to be thrashed by UCLA. This year, Pepperdine is back in the mix with a quarterfinal match against UC Davis on December 5. The winner advances to a semifinal match against host Pacific. That winner will make the final, opposite whoever advances from the MPSF-heavy side.

How did we get here?

The conference winners are incontrovertible; they won and no one can contest that. The questions that do arise pertain to how Pacific, which lost twice this season to UCLA, leapfrogged the Bruins to emerge as the bracket’s number two seed and why the two MPSF teams will meet in the semifinals.

Bill Cohn, former coach for the San Jose State women’s team with 40 years playing, coaching and announcing polo, accepted the structure of the bracket, with USC and Stanford on one side of the draw and non-Pac-12 teams on the other.

“I understand why USC is on this side of the bracket,” Cohn said via email. “Seeding happens after the selections and are based on head-to-head games. USC lost twice to Pacific and once to Pepperdine, so they belong at four seed.”

Speaking of the Trojans’ task, the former Bruin said: “They have a tough road. Gotta best an undefeated team [Harvard]. Then the number one seed. Then the host team. Very steep climb. Having said that I think Pacific played worse over the weekend than UCLA. UCLA took Stanford to OT in the semifinals and would be favored against anyone else except the two teams they lost to all season.”

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Harvard’s Alex Tosotadze beats Princeton’s Billy Motherway, as unbeaten Crimson advance to NCAAs. Photo Courtesy: Nicole Maloney

Then, stating what apparently was the case for the selection committee, Cohn added: “I guess UCLA’s losses this weekend were worse than Pacific’s.”

Steven Munatones, who like Cohn has decades of experience as an observer of the game at all levels, thought that the bracket this year represents an imbalance.

“To take the NCAA basketball bracket-making decisions as a model of what is fair and right, I think the NCAA would have considered Stanford and USC to be the best of the teams at this point in the season and seeded them on opposite sides of the bracket, giving them the greatest possibility of playing in the NCAA finals,” Munatones wrote in an email. “This makes sense because USC is not only defending champions, but also faced all kinds of internal dynamics throughout the summer and fall.”

Observing that the Trojans have salvaged their season after a start that saw them uncharacteristically lose four of their first 13 matches, Munatones said that host Pacific played well earlier in the year.

“Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I would have at least switched UOP and USC in the current brackets,” he wrote. “Theoretically, Harvard (provided they win their play-in game) would play UOP and the winner of Pepperdine vs. UC Davis would face USC.”

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Stanford’s Tyler Abramson. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Speculating about how the bracket might play out, Munatones framed a bigger picture for polo: how the success of non-Pac-12 schools is transforming the sport at the collegiate level by spreading high school talent to schools outside of the Big Four.

“If UC Davis does upset Pepperdine and UOP — which is not completely unrealistic — it would be great for Davis to play in the national championship game,” he said then added, “At the end of the day, this season was entirely unpredictable and unexpected, so the NCAA selection seemed to follow suit.”

In a comment to Swimming World earlier this week, Dante Dettamanti, who led Stanford to eight NCAA titles in his quarter-century tenure at the Farm, endorsed Pacific as the right choice for an at-large bid but agreed that MPSF teams should be on opposite sides of the draw.

“UOP deserves the 2nd seed, as they have a 2-0 record against USC. That being said, USC should be seeded third ahead of Pepperdine because Pepperdine had 7 losses and USC had only 5 losses,” he said. “Since overall record (losses) is a primary criteria, USC has two fewer losses. The game between them, which Pepperdine won, should not be considered, as it is a secondary criteria.”

Apparently the old Cardinal coach still bleeds for his team. “Stanford as the number one seed should be playing Pepperdine in the semi-finals, and not USC.”

Schedule:

Upper Bracket:

First round, November 30: Bucknell vs. Harvard, 12:30 p.m. (EST) at Harvard’s Blodgett Pool

Quarterfinals, December 5: Bucknell / Harvard winner plays USC on 12/5 @ 4:00 p.m. (EST) at Pacific’s Chris Kjeldsen Pool

Semifinals, December 7: that winner plays #1 Stanford, 8:00 p.m. (EST) at Pacific

Lower Bracket

Quarterfinals, December 5: UC Davis vs. Pepperdine, 5:45 p.m. (EST) at Pacific

Semifinals, December 7: that winner plays UOP at Pacific, 10:00 p.m. (EST) at Pacific

Finals, December 8: 6 p.m. at Pacific

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