George Kuntz remembered what happened in 2006, when his UC Irvine men's soccer team was 13-4-3 and ready to accept its first invitation to the NCAA tournament. The Anteaters were snubbed.
So, mindful of that, he chose to gather his team for Monday's NCAA Division I announcement in a quiet room on campus -- “just in case” -- rather than with well-wishers at the sports-themed restaurant across the street.
There were a lot of broken hearts in that room.
“Absolutely,” Kuntz said, his voice barely above a whisper, not long after the four 12-team brackets streamed across ESPNU. “It's something we won't forget. … This is probably as deep a disappointment as [we've ever had].”
The NCAA's soccer committees have made some frightful decisions over the years, especially in seeding its women's tournament, but it's hard to imagine a poorer one than the omission of this year's UC Irvine side from the field.
The Anteaters (14-3-3) won the Big West Conference regular-season title, were ranked No. 1 in the West Regional rankings most of the season and were in the national top 10 for the final six weeks of the regular season.
But blame for this should go primarily to the process, in particular the NCAA's over-reliance on a heavily flawed tool: Ratings Performance Index, or RPI.
UC Irvine, which was seeded in the 2008 and 2009 NCAA tournaments, reaching the Sweet 16 in 2008, boasted a résumé that included 11 shutouts -- one of them a 2-0 decision over Oakland (Mich.), which is in the field; another in a scoreless draw with UC Santa Barbara, which won the Big West's automatic berth -- and tremendous respect from Kuntz's colleagues, who voted the Anteaters as high as seventh (as recently as Nov. 2) in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America's weekly poll.
But a shock loss to Cal State Fullerton in the Big West tournament semifinals knocked UCI's RPI to 62 -- an incomprehensible figure that illustrates the failure of the tool to make judgments in sports in which no teams play national schedules.
The RPI awards college soccer's traditional power conferences -- the Atlantic Coast, Big East and Big Ten primarily -- and other conferences within their regions. Teams from smaller conferences in the East, Southeast and Midwest bolster their strengths of schedule, which is 75 percent of the RPI, by playing so many nonconference games against power-conference schools.
It discriminates against the West, and not just in men's soccer. The NCAA's baseball and women's soccer brackets annually produce groans from this side of the country.
The schools of six of the 10 members of the NCAA's men's soccer committee, which determined the brackets over the weekend, were included in the tournament, and it's hard to argue against most of them. UC Santa Barbara and William & Mary received automatic berths. UCLA, North Carolina and Ohio State are established powerhouses enjoying strong seasons -- all three are among the 16 national seeds.
Kuntz's primary complaint Monday was that the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, hardly among the nation's best, placed three teams into the field: Sacramento State, which captured the automatic berth by winning the conference tournament, plus Mountain Division regular-season titlist Denver and New Mexico, which had lost in the tournament semifinals -- and had but nine victories apiece. None of the three were in the NSCAA's top 25 last week. The next poll will be released Tuesday.
“To be ranked No. 1 in the West for six weeks, to be ranked in the top 10 six or seven weeks, to see Denver and New Mexico go [to the tournament] when New Mexico got beat in [the MPSF tournament] by Cal State Bakersfield -- who we beat, 4-0 [in September] -- is incomprehensible,” Kuntz said.
“To see Denver and New Mexico come out of what is arguably the weakest conference in the West -- to see [the MPSF] have three teams go to the tournament and the Big West have only one is also incredible.”
New Mexico, a perennial tournament team that lost to Maryland in the 2005 NCAA title game but hasn't gotten past the second round since, had a representative on the committee: Kurt Esser, associate athletic director. The Lobos split their season series with Air Force (UCI beat Air Force, 5-0, in September) and went 0-1-1 against Cal State Bakersfield. Denver lost to the Big West's Cal Poly in early September and went 0-1-1 against UNLV (UCI beat UNLV, 4-0, in September).
The Anteaters, diminished by injury, finished poorly, with just one win in their last four games. No shame in the 0-0 draw with UC Santa Barbara, of course, but a last-minute loss Nov. 3 at Cal State Northridge (3-14-2) and the tournament defeat a week later to Cal State Fullerton (7-12-2) took a heavy toll.
The NCAA committee considers teams' final eight games. UCI was 4-2-2 in its final eight. Denver was 4-3-1 and New Mexico was 4-1-2. The Anteaters, to anyone who really understands, had the tougher schedule over those eight games. RPI said otherwise.
“We will remember the games [against Northridge and Fullerton] that led up to this,” Kuntz said, “remember those next year, remember what it took to get there.”
Denver was 36th in last week's RPI, and New Mexico was 53rd. Sacramento State, which beat UCI in September, was 73rd. Soccer America predicted the 48-team field Monday morning. UC Irvine wasn't on the magazine's list.
The NCAA Division I soccer committee, with school's men's soccer team's record and tournament status:
Al Albert, head coach, William and Mary (15-3-2), automatic berth
John Bluem, head coach, Ohio State (10-5-4), at-large berth, 16th seed
Elmar Bolowich, head coach, North Carolina (16-3-1), at-large berth, fourth seed
John Diffley (chair), senior associate athletics director, St. John's (10-6-2), no berth
Kurt Esser, associate athletic director, New Mexico (9-5-5), at-large berth
Mike Getman, head coach, Ala.-Birmingham (10-7-1), no berth
Diane O'Brien, executive associate athletics director, UC Santa Barbara (13-4-3), automatic berth
Dick Regan Jr., athletic director, Holy Cross (3-10-5), no berth
Ken Weiner, senior associate athletic director, UCLA (14-4-1), at-large berth, eighth seed
Bill Wnek, assistant coach, Loyola, Md. (9-7-2), no berth