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The Transformation of the NCAA National Duals: New Coke vs. Diet Coke

The NCAA National Duals want to change -- is it a good idea?

August is a slow time of the year for sports news in general, but it's particularly slow for collegiate wrestling, since we're still grinding our way through the long, long off-season -- we're still three and a half months away from the first real, competitive matches taking place. But there's news afoot anyway -- very big news, in fact. News that could transform the wrestling season dramatically. Willie Saylor of flowrestling has the details:

-- After the meeting on Saturday, and with the endorsement of the college coaches at the convention, the NWCA will present this option at the NCAA Championships Cabinet Meeting on September 11th of this year. Should the NCAA approve this plan, your team champions will begin to be determined in a dual format starting in the 2013-2014 season.

-- The dual championships will be held in the 3rd week of February.

-- Sixteen teams will qualify for the team tournament based on results of regular season duals. Conference Champions receive automatic berths with the balance determined by at-large nods.

-- The first round will be contested at the home of the higher seed. The remaining eight schools will compete at the same site to decide the team champ.

-- The individual tournament, which will still crown Individual National Champions, and will still be scored, will be held about approximately when it has been in recent years: mid-March. The ‘winning’ team of the tournament will not be a sanctioned champion squad by the NCAA.

Whoa. Changing the way NCAA wrestling team titles have been determined for most of the last century? That's a pretty significant move. So why the move? The National Wrestling Coaches of America (NWCA), the organization that's been putting together the National Duals for several years, has long wanted NCAA recognition for their event and has long wanted a "true" National Duals event. This change would certainly do that. Saylor notes two other reasons for the change -- a desire to increase the importance of the dual meet season and the potential for more ESPN money. According to Saylor, ESPN has been so satisfied with the performance of the NCAA Tournament in recent years they're interested in more wrestling, with a potential true National Duals event being the most eye-catching option available. Anything a sport like wrestling can do to add more money to the pot is probably worth taking a look at, frankly.

The other rationale -- boosting the importance of the dual meet season -- is less cut-and-dried, but perhaps more interesting. It's always been an interesting paradox of wrestling that while the vast majority of the season is spent competing in dual meets, the most prized trophies (conference championship, national championship) are achieved via elimination-style tournaments. What is the purpose of all those dual meets? In many ways, winning the meet is secondary to the wins individual wrestlers obtain and the experience (and potential seeding boost down the road) they acquire. Iowa has won many, many dual meet Big Ten championships, most recently in 2011. In case you haven't noticed, they're not hanging banners for those accomplishments in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Dual meets are an attempt to impose a team construct on a fundamentally individual sport. There's no teamwork in wrestling outside of practice room scrapping and cheering for teammates from the sidelines. You can't tag in a teammate when you need some help. (Which is a shame, because that would be completely awesome.) Ten wrestlers go out and wrestle their matches, we count up the points attached to the outcomes of those matches, and then we declare one team a winner. (In a way, tournaments are this same idea on steroids.) Essentially, what dual meets do is reward the coach who's able to assemble the a group with the most quality from top to bottom. It's not that hard to find 1-2 good wrestlers. On the other hand, it is considerably harder to find 6-8 (or more) good wrestlers.

Of course, dual meets are also fun. Anyone who's taken in an Iowa meet at CHA can attest to that point. They're fun because we like anything that gives us an opportunity to cheer for "our" team and cheer against an opposing team, even when it's a construct as fundamentally flimsy as the wrestling "team." And, as I noted earlier, dual meets are the predominant form of competition in college wrestling -- they eat up most of the season from December through February. Shouldn't all those meets actually mean something? Isn't it a good thing that dual meets might get even better and even more exciting? Currently, there's no incentive for coaches not to forfeit a match or for them not to send out a woefully overmatched competitor. But if dual meets become meaningful, then those strategies become much less appealing -- and the quality of wrestling in dual meets probably gets at least a little bit better.

Switching the method of determining the team national champion from points accrued via a team's performance in an individual tournament to a team's progression through a dual meet tournament seems like a big change -- but is it really? There's always going to be a certain amount of arbitrariness in the awarding of a team national title in wrestling -- again, it's intrinsically an individual sport, with one man versus another man -- so it's hard to say that a "team" in one format (individual tournaments) is better than a "team" in another format (dual meet tournament). But even if we accept that it is a big change, is that a bad thing? If dual meets are a better reflection of the overall strength and quality of a team, doesn't that mean that we should be recognizing the best dual meet team as the team national champion?

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What impact would it have on results? Would different champions be crowned under this new model? Maybe, maybe not. Iowa won the team title at the NCAA Tournament from 2008 to 2010. They also won the National Duals from 2008 to 2010 and won all but one dual meet (a 2008 loss to Oklahoma State) in that span. Of course, several notable teams declined to participate in those National Duals (most notably Oklahoma State, but also Cornell and Ohio State). Penn State has won the last two NCAA Tournaments, but not the last two National Duals tournaments. (Granted, it's impossible to win if you don't even enter the event.) They even lost a dual meet in-season to last year's National Duals champion, Minnesota. Of course, that meet was early in the season in November; might the result have been different if they'd met at the end of the season, in February? Maybe, maybe not. You could also argue that a dual meet tournament could be detrimental because a single-elimination event of one-off showdowns opens up the possibility of upsets... but if that's the case then I assume you also hate March Madness.

A dual meet tournament also seems like it would shrink the gap between teams to an extent, which could make the race for the national title more interesting. Under the current format, David Taylor and Ed Ruth contributed almost sixty points to Penn State's team total (a huge chunk of their 143 point overall haul). In a dual meet setting, the most either guy could add to PSU's total is six points a meet (if they pin their opponents). And, again, dual meet results do not necessarily equate to tournament performance. In 2011, Iowa beat Penn State in a dual meet, 22-13. Penn State had the last laugh, though, winning the NCAA Tournament. Would Iowa have been the 2011 national champions under the proposed model? Well... maybe. They did beat Penn State, but they (probably) would have needed to do it again in February and they also (probably) would have needed to beat some combination of Oklahoma State (who they tied with), Cornell (didn't wrestle), and American (ditto).

Look, there's no way to get around the fact that figuring out how to assign a team national champion in wrestling is an exercise in irrationality. You can do it by assembling teams of ten wrestlers and having them wrestle other teams of ten wrestlers until only one is left victorious. You can do it by sending teams of wrestlers (up to ten) into a giant bracket and seeing who winds up with the most wins (and/or the most dominant wins). There is no teamwork in wrestling -- there's just individuals representing their chosen school on the mat and trying to win. What competitive structure we put those matches in is up to us.

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The biggest objections to this change seem to be borne out of fear for what it might do to the current structure and, in particular, the hugely popular and successful NCAA Tournament. To be sure, the current NCAA Tournament is a great event and it would be a mistake to damage it (either logistically or competitively) to build up a separate event. But what are the magnitudes and probabilities of those risks? Logistically, the fear is that adding another elite national tournament would cannibalize ticket sales from the current tournament. The thinking is that fans won't be able to afford (nor have the interest in) traveling to two big events. That's a plausible fear, but also a potentially overblown one.

The appeal of the NCAA Tournament is not its unpredictability or any sort of "anyone can win!" mystique -- far from it. In most years, there's an established favorite (Penn State now, Iowa before them, and Oklahoma State before them) and a small handful of teams with legitimate (or quasi-legitimate) hopes of beating them for the title. No one else has a prayer, barring an absolute miracle. And yet St. Louis and Omaha and Philadelphia have not sold out in recent years with nothing but Iowa or Penn State or Oklahoma State or Minnesota fans -- there have been many, many other fans in attendance, fans who had no team or whose teams had no shot (realistic or otherwise) at claiming a national title. Are there enough fans like that to support two major tournaments? Maybe, maybe not. If the events are spread out -- one in Omaha and one in Philadelphia, say -- and drew upon different fanbases, then it seems possible that it could work. It seems like an idea worth investigating, at least.

The other fear is rooted in competition -- without a team title to compete for, would individual wrestlers be less inclined to push for bonus points (and the accompanying boost they provide in the team race), leading to more conservative, less exciting wrestling. That's another plausible concern... and one that also seems a little overblown. I won't deny that you might see some wrestlers wrestle more conservatively or cautiously in order to better improve their odds of winning and advancing... then again, have you watched the NCAA Tournament in recent years? Have you watched Oklahoma State wrestle? Did you see what Nico Megaludis did in the NCAA final last year? There's a lot of that sort of thing happening already.

The fear is that it would get even worse, but I'm not convinced that's all that likely. As I noted earlier, the current NCAA Tournament begins with, at max, 4-5 teams entering as realistic contenders for the national title. Everyone else is competing for pride and individual glory -- yet we still see many of those wrestlers pushing for major decisions and trying to get pins. Why does a guy from Illinois push for a major decision in a match where a simple decision would advance him to the next round (and move him a step closer to his goal of a national title) just as easily? My guess: because that's just how (most) of these guys are wired. Look, the guys who are prone to stalling and wasting time and blocking off and being a general pain-in-the-ass are already that way; this decision isn't going to change the way they wrestle. The idea that there's going to be a mass transformation of the other guys -- the guys who are more exciting and who do push the pace and try for big moves and big scores -- into the dull, cautious guys... well, it seems a little far-fetched to me.

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What would this decision change from an Iowa perspective? Not much. From Gable to Zalesky to Brands, Iowa has always striven to assemble strong teams from top to bottom. The truth is that a strong team is good for dual meets and individual tournaments. There's a reason Brands' Iowa teams won three-straight NCAA titles and three straight National Duals titles, after all. I can't see a change like this getting Brands to change his methods or approaches too much. There's a chance that it might make him more willing to consider not redshirting stud freshmen (especially if the alternative at a weight was fairly unpalatable), but only time will tell on that front.

Incidentally, barring a tumble to late-period Zalesky levels, there's basically zero chance that Iowa would ever find themselves omitted from this tournament. Even if they don't win the Big Ten's automatic berth (which they wouldn't have last year), they should be in prime position most years to claim an at-large selection. (I would expect the Big Ten to dominate the at-large sections, in fact.)

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Nothing has been formally decided or changed yet -- that won't happen until September 11, a month from now. There's a chance the status quo will remain in place and we'll all go about our business the same as always. But there's a chance that the status quo won't remain in place and the wrestling world as we know it will look different come 2013-14. But let's say things do change. And let's further say that they change for the worse, that the new National Duals tournament flops and that interest in the existing NCAA Tournament erodes. Guess what? As far as I can tell, there's nothing preventing the powers-that-be in wrestling from doing a 180 and restoring the previous (or current) structure. This change is happening -- if it happens -- because the will of the coaches is behind it. If they decide they want a different change -- they can make that happen, too.

To me, the worst case scenario for this move is New Coke: a failed experiment that leads to the return of the beloved old favorite. But the best case scenario is Diet Coke: a wildly successful experiment that creates two hugely popular and exciting* events (or carbonated beverages, if you like). Why not roll those dice?

* Yes, I recognize the irony in calling Diet Coke "exciting."