A potentially huge change is coming to NCAA volleyball this season. The number of teams going to the postseason this year has doubled, from 64 to 128. That means a few weeks of extra practice for the players, more matches for the fans, and more chances for recognition or redemption for the teams.
After a 22 year absence, the National Invitational Volleyball Championship is returning this season. Mostly forgotten except in media guide footnotes, the NIVC (originally called the Women’s Invitational Volleyball Championship or WIVC) began in 1989, and according to the NCAA “was created to provide an additional postseason opportunity for NCAA Division I women’s volleyball programs”. It was (and, in this current incarnation, is being) likened to the NIT in basketball. It ran until 1995, after which it disbanded when the NCAA Tournament grew to 64 teams.
(Tennessee actually hosted the second NIVC tournament in Knoxville back in 1990. You can read all about that event here at TNVB.net!)
The new NIVC is being put on by Triple Crown Sports, the group who runs both the preseason and postseason NCAA DI WNIT basketball tournaments. Rather than using a single-site, three-day, pool-play/playoff format as they did in the past version, the NIVC will follow the current NCAA tourney format, with play spread over three weeks in a single elimination tournament at campus sites.
The NCAA selects its tournament participants on November 26. Later that evening the NIVC will announce their field. Each of the 32 Division I conferences will get one automatic selection. This pick is given to the team with the best regular-season conference record not already in the NCAA Tournament. That leaves 32 more spots available. These at-large teams will be selected by looking at the RPI and taking the first 32 teams that weren’t selected for the NCAAs or the NIVC automatic qualifiers. (Teams will need to have at least a .500 overall record if they are ranked in the RPI over #50 or #90 — there are conflicting accounts about which rank is needed.)
After the field is set the NIVC will sort the 64 teams into groups based on team strength. This, along with geographical considerations, will be used to create the bracket. So teams in the higher ranked groups will be pitted against teams in the lower ranked groups in the first round. Whether there will be an announced seeding, I don’t know. The NIVC says they will try to avoid teams from the same conference meeting in the first and second rounds.
All matches will be played at campus sites. The first and second rounds will take place between November 28-30. One school will host three other teams. The third round (of 16) will be held between December 1-3, while the fourth round (of 8) will be held December 4-6. The semifinals will be held December 7-9. And the championship match will be on Tuesday, December 12 at 7pm ET. Schools will be allowed to stream games (with appropriate permission and payment to the NIVC). The final match will be streamed online by ESPN.
When Triple Crown Sports announced their new postseason tournament they used the 2016 rankings to show how the field would have looked if the NIVC had been up and running. Tennessee, #84 in the RPI with a 17-14 record would have been in and would have faced North Carolina State in the first round, followed by Radford or Duke in the second round.
AVCA executive director Kathy DeBoer said, “The return of the NIVC is a wonderful opportunity for volleyball offered to us by Triple Crown Sports. It allows us to expand post-season options for our teams and explore our ability to market our sport to our fans.”
So will it work? I honestly don’t know! If the schools get behind this then I believe it could take off. What coach wouldn’t want a few weeks of extra practice not currently allowed for teams that don’t make the NCAA Tournament? And for fans, it’d be great to get more volleyball against teams you don’t normally get to see. But there are questions. There is a lot of extra money involved. More travel time. More days of school missed. Those all apply to the NCAAs too, but will schools want to spend those resources for a tournament between the #64-#128 teams? Then on top of that, there is the uncertainty of hosting. Scheduling for arena events can be made years in advance. It seems like this could be a nightmare to work out logistically. What if two teams that can’t host meet in the third round, for example?
I do like the idea, but I’m afraid that if the execution is flawed it might hinder future tournaments. Maybe starting out with a smaller field might have been more prudent? But the group running things thinks participation won’t be an issue. A Triple Crown Sports representative posted on another website that they talked to “more than half the teams that would have made [the 2016] field; only one school said their administration would not have accepted”. They added that in the Women’s Basketball NIT they also run, “1-2 teams decline to play each year. For the NIVC, TCS expects the first year to have 4-6 teams decline”. Out of 64 teams, only having that few decline would seem to be an acceptable amount, and if it holds could mean the tournament would be a success. The rep concluded, “The women’s college basketball community loves the WNIT, college volleyball is ready for the NIVC”.