By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
March Madness not just for D-I hoops
Placeholder Image

College basketball junkies live for March Madness and pore over the progress of the 68 teams that make up a convoluted science called “bracketology.”  But Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, and the other big schools are not the only ones playing for something in March.
Twelve other tournaments carrying the title of “national championship” are contested annually in March in both men’s and women’s basketball, and provide plenty of incentive for schools who never make it to ESPN. Coaches and players from these smaller schools speak passionately of the roads to their own Final Fours, and national titles in any association create lifelong memories for the players and a recruiting advantage for their schools.
Topping the list of these “other” tournaments are Divisions II and III of the NCAA, which have a similar selection and knockout playoff formats as their big brothers in Division I. Around 64 teams in each division, in both men’s and women’s basketball, make up the Division II and III brackets, with some teams receiving automatic bids and others at-large.  
Around 200 schools are NCAA Division II members. The men’s Division II title game is usually broadcast on CBS, while the Division II women’s championship is carried on ESPN2. Division II basketball play was introduced in 1957.
Though their schools are the smallest with an average enrollment of 2,717, Division III is actually the largest of the NCAA divisions with 438 institutions. No athletic scholarships are permitted in Division III., which held its first national tournament in 1975.
Alternatively, there is also the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), whose schools operate under different regulations than the NCAA. The Kansas City-based NAIA first held a national tournament in 1937 and today offers basketball championships in two divisions for both men and women.
Though still second to the NCAA in membership, the NAIA has seen a sharp decline in recent years as member schools have defected for the NCAA, either moving to Division II or dropping down to non-scholarship Division III. Currently, the NAIA has 252 member schools, down from 588 in 1974.
Some NCAA and NAIA schools also hold additional membership in organizations that run their own “national championships.” The NCAA, however, allows members to play in only one post-season national tournament.
Even the smallest schools have their own tournament. In 1966, the National Small College Athletic Association (NSCAA), a collection of institutions with enrollments under 1,000, was formed to provide an outlet for the tiniest schools on the map. Semi-invitational national tournaments in a variety of sports were sponsored, as was All-American recognition for top individuals.
Bob Staff was the head coach of Blackburn College in Carlinville, Ill. when the school won its second NSCAA national title in men’s basketball in 1985. He says that, three decades later, former players still relish the experience.
“I am certain that as years go by, it becomes bigger and more cherished by the players and coaches,” said Staff. “You are forever associated with a select group of athletes that can say they have won a national championship. It’s one memory that gets better and more cherished with the passage of time.”
Staff also says that a national title on any level is a recruiting bonanza. “Several players that enrolled after our national championship were later inducted into the Blackburn Athletics Hall of Fame themselves,” said Staff. “Coaches were calling and recommending good players to us.”
The NSCAA, whose longtime headquarters were at Martin Luther College in New Ulm, Minn., folded in 2001, and many of its members formed a similar group, the United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA). Based in Newport News, Va., the USCAA lists 83 members and has two divisions of basketball competition for both men and women.
Schools with a religious theme may also join the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA), founded in 1968 and now headquartered in Greenville, S.C. With 111 members, the NCCAA sponsors two basketball divisions for both men and women.
Roy Mulholland, the head women’s basketball coach at Greenville College in Illinois, has led his team to three NCCAA national tournaments. A former NCCAA National Chair, Mulholland says that his school’s membership in the organization is “important both logistically and symbolically. As a Christian college, we want to support an organization whose philosophy lines up with our own philosophy of sport.”
Mulholland adds that his teams who have qualified for NCCAA tournaments have “been one of the highlights for players who have had the experience. The fact that you are guaranteed three games is a real bonus, and you also have a chance to meet and get to know other coaches and players.  Because the NCCAA is a smaller organization, there is a closer feel between the coaches.”
A related organization is the sixteen-member Association of Christian College Athletics, which has its own national basketball championships.  The ACCA is based in Joplin, Mo.
Most two-year institutions are members of the National Junior College Athletic Association, which sponsors three divisions for both men’s and women’s basketball. Established in 1938 and headquartered in Colorado Springs, the NJCAA has 525 members, which are usually recruiting hotbeds for NCAA and NAIA programs.
While the NCAA usually plays its title games at neutral sites, many of the other associations assign their national tournaments to member schools in an application process. The honor of hosting a national championship is a publicity and recruiting bonus for small schools.
Of course, many high school state tournaments promote themselves as “March Madness.” Big colleges who fail to make the NCAA tournament also still have something to play for, including the National Invitation Tournament.
First contested in 1938, the NIT title game is annually held at Madison Square Garden. In its early days, the NIT was as important, if not more so, than the NCAA version, and schools often earned berths in both tournaments.  
Newer on the Division I scene are the College Basketball Invitational and the tournaments, which also cater to schools who fall short of NCAA invitation.
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or