As the 79th NAIA Men’s National Division I Basketball Championship prepares to tip off on Wednesday at Municipal Auditorium, the organization is confronting some hard truths about its future.
NAIA Division I membership has dipped to 97 schools, a number that dilutes the achievement of qualifying as one of 32 teams for college basketball’s longest-running tournament. While 68 teams qualify for the NCAA Division I tournament, that level has 347 schools.
In 2010, the NAIA had 111 Division I members, but in recent years, tournament regulars such as Azusa Pacific (Calif.), McKendree (Ill.) and two-time champions Concordia (Calif.) (2003, 2012) and Oklahoma Baptist (1966, 2010), have departed for NCAA Division II status.
The NAIA also has 135 Division II programs, and the current landscape has some officials wondering if the organization should return to one division in basketball, as it was until breaking into two divisions in 1991-92.
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“It’s something we’ve talked about, but for the last 10 years or so, we’ve had more than 100 (Division I) teams, and our coaches at this point prefer the two divisions,” said Jim Carr, president and chief executive officer of the NAIA.
“I still think it’s special to be (in the Division I tournament), even if it’s one of every three teams. There’s also the possibility of shrinking the field, but we’ve been 32 teams since 1938, so we wouldn’t do that lightly.”
Despite the attrition, Park coach Jason Kline, whose team is back in the tournament after a four-year absence, said being one of the 32 teams is still a major achievement.
“Yes, we’ve lost some good teams, and we’ve added a few teams that are pretty good as well,” Kline said. “I don’t think (fewer teams) takes away anything because the basketball right now is pretty good and pretty balanced. It’s not easy to get to the national tournament … it’s like you made it playing down there.”
A merger of the divisions could lead to a competitive imbalance because Division I schools currently award 11 full scholarships while Division II schools provide six.
But Carr pointed out how well Heart of America Athletic Conference schools have performed in the tournament since moving up to Division I. MidAmerica Nazarene of Olathe, the 2007 Division II champion, reached the semifinals of the 2009 and 2014 Division I Tournaments.
“There are teams in Division II good enough to compete,” MidAmerica coach Rocky Lamar said. “But there’s not as many, and they aren’t as deep.
“The first year we were in Division I, we made the Final Four, and the next two years we didn’t make the tournament, and we still had the core of a great team that had come off three straight Final Fours at the Division II tournament.”
MidAmerica Nazarene competes in the 12-team Heart of America Athletic Conference, and has just two guaranteed spots in the Division I tournament and sometimes receives a third “host” spot.
“Our league has gotten bigger, and it is so competitive,” said Lamar, whose Pioneers qualified for the national tournament as conference tournament runner-up. “People don’t realize how hard it is to win. To get to the national tournament is a great honor for all these kids.”
If the NAIA doesn’t combine divisions, it could reduce the Division I men’s and women’s tournaments to 16 teams each, play both in one venue and provide the same inventory of games in a week. Currently, the NAIA Division I women are in the second year of a two-year contract to play their 32-team tournament at the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena in Independence simultaneously with the men at Municipal.
“Everything is on the table, and that could be a possibility,” Carr said. “Because we’ve been at 32 teams since 1938, we’d have to think long and hard before we change that format. But at some point, it may be reality.”
There isn’t a drop-dead number of Division I teams that would force the NAIA to consider merging the divisions or reducing the fields. But if the ratio of member schools and 32 tournament participants drop to less than three-to-one, “we’ll probably have that discussion over the next couple of years,” Carr said.
“But at least for the short term, we’ll keep it like it is. “
Carr doesn’t anticipate many more NAIA Division I programs leaving for what they thought were greener pastures in the NCAA.
“There was a big push by the NCAA Division II that came in and went after some of our schools,” Carr said. “I think our membership seems to be pretty solidified and pretty loyal now to the NAIA. So I think we’re in pretty good shape.
“We’re actually having a lot of discussions with some (NCAA) Division II and III schools. Some of the things those schools thought might happen because they joined the NCAA haven’t necessarily happened. The idea was the NCAA brand was going to help them in terms of recruiting, overall enrollment, exposure … and … it just hasn’t happened.”
Randy Covitz: @randycovitz