Why Merrimack must sit out March Madness in its historic season and is in first place in its conference

A year ago, Merrimack finished 22-10 and lost in the first round of the NCAA Division II Tournament. 

It was the program's final go-round as a D-II program as they began the transition to Division I. 

This season the Warriors have been the shock of small-conference basketball. They are 19-11, the best team in the Northeast Conference (13-4) and have set the record for most wins by a first-year D-I team. You read right: no school in the history of Division I has won more games in its first year of competition than these Merrimack Warriors. 

Unfortunately, Merrimack's ineligible for the 2020 NCAA Tournament, the NIT and even the NEC Tournament. It's ineligible next year, too. And in 2022 and 2023.

Why? NCAA rules deem it mandatory. There's a four-year NCAA postseason moratorium for schools that transition to D-I. The rule has been in place since 2011. From 2002-2011 it was five years. Prior to that, it was a two-year prohibition. Currently, for Division III schools, if you want to make a move to Division I the transition period is 12 years and requires you to have a long holdover in D-II.

"The resulting structure will ensure that reclassifying members are committed to the D-I philosophy and operating principles," an NCAA statement from 2011 reads. "In addition, this legislation will increase the likelihood that such institutions will operate successful, competitive programs at the D-I level."

But with Minnesota-based St. Thomas making its move out of D-III and into D-I, an NCAA representative told me the protocol regarding D-III shifts will be changed soon. 

As for Merrimack and its postseason problem for 2020, the NCAA determines ineligibility only for the NCAA Tournament and NIT, meaning the team's season will not end Thursday night when it hosts Central Connecticut. The CBI and CIT are not NCAA-run, so Merrimack is able to play come March in either of those small-time tourneys.

"We are 100% going to play in one of those two events," Warriors coach Joe Gallo told CBS Sports. "Have an official invite from the CIT, it will most likely be them."

The NCAA does not have any say over Merrimack's eligibility with its conference tournament. The NEC made the call on not allowing Merrimack to participate in the NEC playoffs, the reason being that the NEC does not want to have a situation wherein Merrimack wins the NEC bracket only to have the loser of the title game take the automatic bid. It is within a conference's right to do that, though. For example, the ASUN is allowing North Alabama into its conference tournament even though North Alabama is not NCAA Tournament-eligible until 2023. 

"I have not heard anything different from the NEC," Gallo said. "I'm assuming it will be all four years." 

Why the four-year wait for this process? The biggest and most obvious reason is Division I is already bloated with 353 teams -- D-I would probably benefit from shrinking by about 80 teams -- and if it was a one- or two-year process, you might have another 30 schools trying to get in. Nowadays, you also need a conference to formally invite you, plus the application to the NCAA costs $10,000. The rules and regulations from D-I vs. D-II or D-III are different, so there is a financial component that is taken into account as well, to make sure the schools have the infrastructure in place to support the jump.

Merrimack, North Alabama and Cal Baptist are all in various stages of D-I transition and so they are not eligible for NCAA or NIT tourneys. 

But the NCAA Tournament and NIT are immaterial to merely playing in one's league tournament, and it's unfair to the Merrimack seniors to not even get a chance at the NEC Tournament. Those players should have the opportunity to win a trophy in postseason play. The league should amend protocol for the next three seasons. This has been a great story for men's basketball this season, and to see it be put on hiatus for nearly three weeks (until the CIT starts) is regrettable. 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. This is his 10th season reporting on college basketball for CBS. He also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics... Full Bio

Our Latest Stories