New NCAA Indoor Championships Qualifying System

Earlier this year, it was announced that there will be a new system in place for qualifying to the NCAA Indoor Championships. It’s created a bit of a tempest in a teapot, a back and forth within an extremely small echo chamber.

In order to understand the new system, you need to know about the old system. So bear with me if you’re already well aware.

Given the short season for indoor college track leading to the championships and the more limited physical space for competitors at those championships, qualifying was (and still is) completely based on times/heights/distances achieved during the season. A very tough “automatic” standard was published for each event and all who hit it qualified. A less stringent “provisional” standard was also published, and the fields for each event were filled out to anywhere from twelve to eighteen athletes from those provisional qualifiers, going in “descending order”.

Since there are many different configurations of tracks, the standards were different for different kinds of tracks. “Oversize” tracks (more than 220y per lap) and “banked” tracks (200m to 220y per lap) were given the same standard, but “flat” tracks (200m to 220y per lap) were given an easier standard.

But the differences between the standards for oversized/banked tracks and flat tracks were based on…well, I don’t know what they were based on, but definitely not data sets from college track meets. Also, the differences between the standards for oversized/banked tracks and flat tracks were significantly different in each of the NCAA’s three divisions, which didn’t make sense.

Moreover, despite the break given to 200m flat tracks, there has always been a perception that you couldn’t qualify to the NCAAs on one of them–which kind of defeats the purpose of creating different qualifying standards for said flat tracks. New Mexico assistant coach Rich Ceronie:

Way back in 2005 or so when I was a member of the NCAA Committee I had access to a large pool of data on NCAA qualification. I started to review it since at that time the conference I was associated with had mostly 200 meter flat tracks. Obviously, it was almost impossible to qualify on those facilities. So I took all the NCAA qualifying marks for a two year period and assigned them to size track achieved on. I found that in the US 68% of all tracks are flat, 200, yet only 2.5% of NCAA qualifying performances came from flat 200 tracks. While not a rocket scientist I said……ahh hah.


So a task force was created to study the issue and come up with recommendations. From Track and Field News:

Availing themselves of collegiate performance data from the 2007–12 indoor seasons, a subcommittee of three coaches—Akron’s Scott Jones, Concordia Minnesota’s Garrick Larson and Central Missouri’s Kirk Pedersen—plus NCAA Track & Field Committee secretary Bob Podkaminer compared individual times on varying track types to derive average differentials.

Once the data was crunched, the conclusions were:
1) “there is no appreciable difference between a banked 200 track and an oversized 300 meter track” (according to Ceronie), thus justifying continuing the practice of making no distinction between times run on either of those two kinds of tracks.

2) times run on 200m flat tracks needed a significantly greater conversion factor, especially for the shorter races of 200m and 400m

3) a single conversion factor should be used among all three divisions, and it should be a multiplier rather than a simply subtracting a set amount of time (as had been the past practice).

The changes to this year’s NCAA Indoor Championships qualifying system are twofold: marks will be indexed via a new system reflecting the three issues above, and the qualifiers will simply be the top 16 in each event (thus eliminating the automatic and provisional qualifiers).

The reactions

There were a lot of people who were not happy. The discussion at the Track and Field News message boards got rather heated. Track and Field News ran a two-part series examining the issue, coverage that committee member Scott Jones called “campaign-style coverage, complete with overblown rhetoric and allegations of ‘home cooking.’” Brett Hoover, at HepsTrack.com, took the rhetoric up a notch and said the NCAA “is using junk science to index times this year”.

The biggest issue many had is with the conclusion that banked tracks and oversize tracks do not produce different times. Starting with this assumption that the two are not alike, the critics started picking nits with the methodology. And around and around we go.

My thoughts? I don’t think we’re debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but it’s heading that direction.

What I would want out of a qualifying system is simplicity, consistency, and fairness. I think we’ve got those things now with the new system.

Simplicity
Do banked tracks and oversized tracks have exactly the same effects on times? Are all banked tracks the same, and are all oversized tracks the same? In both cases, no. Is there enough variation either between or within the two categories to justify a wide array of conversion factors? Here, I also say no.

Consistency
The conversion factors are the same for all of the NCAA’s three division. In the past, that wasn’t true, which was pretty silly.

Fairness
In the past, access to the best tracks was a necessity for qualifying to the national championships. The new conversion factors give a larger break for smaller tracks, which makes the athlete the primary variable in the equation, not the venue.

The Effect

Remarkably absent from these arguments is any examination of the effects of the new qualifying system. The data is out there–we can apply them to past seasons and look at what would happen. How would it affect who qualifies to the NCAAs? So I did just that for last year’s men’s qualifiers in Division I.

Did it make any difference in who qualified to the national championships?

Almost without exception, the answer was a solid no.

Just three athletes who did qualify to the 2012 NCAA men’s Division I indoor championships would be excluded if we applied the 2013 qualifying system. They are:

Alex George, Oklahoma State, 3000 meters
Everett Walker, Baylor, 200 meters
Trey Hadnot, Louisiana Tech, 200 meters

George would not have qualified not because of the new indexing system, but because there will be exactly 16 qualifiers per event in 2013 and he was the 17th qualifier in his event.

Walker and Hadnot would have been casualties of the new indexing system, a difference which is greatest in the 200 meters. It may not be coincidental that both of these two sprinters were dead last in their heats at the NCAAs. At the very least, it cannot be said that it would have been a grave injustice to leave them out in favor of other sprinters.

My conclusion is that while this new system may not be perfect, it’s hardly the end of the world. It’s merely a data-driven update of the past system–one that I didn’t seem to hear many people criticizing as grossly unfair.

I’ll admit that I didn’t take a similar look at the women’s qualifiers nor Divisions II or III. If you’d like to argue with my conclusion, I invite you to examine those qualifiers and see if the new system makes a difference. If there is a difference and a big one, then you will have based your conclusion on reality rather than a perception of reality.

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