Small College Basketball


John, how does the NAIA level of basketball compare to the NCAA level and the JUCO level of talent?


Good question.  I think that I would separate the NAIA vs. NCAA and NAIA vs. JUCO questions, as the JUCO level is a little different situation. 

I think that I’ll avoid the JUCO comparison, as the JUCO players typically end up playing the last two (and sometimes three) years of their collegiate careers at NCAA Div. I, NCAA Div. II and NAIA (and NCAA Div. III) schools.  Often, the very top JUCO teams have are loaded with major NCAA Div. I talent.  There are many different reasons why student-athletes attend and play at the JUCO level, but I would say that that top teams and top players are heavily recruited by four-years colleges at the various levels.  I’m not sure that it’s fair to compare the schools with two years of eligibility with those that offer four years of eligibility (and typically recruit those JUCO players).

In regards to the NAIA vs. NCAA Div. II question, I think that it’s a good and fair question.  Before I go into my answer, let me preface it by saying that I’ve coached at both levels, and now served in administration at both levels.  While I’ve served as an Athletic Director at the NCAA Div. II level and served on the NCAA Div. II Men’s Basketball National Committee, I now serve as the Director of the NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball National Tournament.  With this said, I suppose that I need to be sensitive to my current position and to the coaches and student-athletes at the NAIA level in my current position.

With the statment above, I would say that the basketball being played at the NCAA Div. II and NAIA levels would be a much higher level than the average fan would know, and the top 20-30 NCAA Div. II and top 10- 15 NAIA teams in a typical year are simply better than the bottom 50-75 NCAA Div. I teams.  Feel free to re-read the previous statement.  Those that coach at these levels are well aware of this, and I have been told that I am somewhat conservative when I make this statement.

NCAA Div. II offers a maximum of 10 full athletic scholarships for men’s basketball, while the NAIA Division I allows 11 full athletic scholarships.  The NAIA Div. II programs are allowed 6 full athletic scholarships.  Please note that there is a difference in the definition of countable athletic aid between the NCAA and the NAIA.  There is also a difference in the academic eligibility between the two associations.  Depending upon the specific circumstance, some will say that the NCAA Div. II has more stringent criteria and others will say that the NAIA has tougher academic criteria.  This often comes down to the individual circumstance.

In terms of a broad answer of the better competition or higher level, it’s a tough question.  To be somewhat politically correct, I would say that the very top of each association is quite comparable.  If you compare the top 10 or 20 of the NAIA Div. I vs. the top 10 or 20 of the NCAA Div. II, I would think that it would be fairly comparable.  The reality is that the NCAA Div. II may have more depth.  For example, the teams that may be ranked 50-100 at the NCAA Div. II level would, in my opinion, likely be better at the NCAA Div. II level.  With this said - and this is important to understand - the statistics show that it costs approximately twice as much to run an NCAA Div. II athletic department compared with an NAIA athletic department.  The studies (independent studies from NACDA consulting) use data that compares athletic departments in general, and then the top programs based on the Directors Cup standings, and they show that NCAA Div. II programs simply spend twice as much as NAIA programs.  Certainly, the highly competive programs spend more money, but the analogy is the same in the fact that the dollars are approximately twice as much for NCAA Div. II.  

With the statement above, yes, I think that the NCAA Div. II may have more depth, yet they are typically spending a whole lot more money within their athletic departments.

Again, the very top programs are very comparable.  For example, St. Catherine’s (NAIA) just defeated the NCAA Div. II’s #1 ranked team, Bellarmine, in the past week.  Concordia (CA - NAIA) defeated UC-Irvine (NCAA Div. I) by double digits (after being up by over 20 points in the second half) for the second year in a row, while Carroll College defeated Idaho State (NCAA Div. I).  NCAA Div. II teams also defeat NCAA Div. I teams on a regular basis. 

The point is that the top 10-20 NAIA teams, the top 30-40 NCAA Div. II teams and the bottom 50-75 NCAA Division I teams are all very, very comparable.  On any given day, just about any of those teams could defeat any of the others.  If you put them all on the court and took away the labels (NAIA, NCAA Div. II, NCAA Div. I), you wouldn’t be able to distinguish between them.  To the average basketball fans, they would be surprised to see the high quality of basketball being played at the NAIA and NCAA Division II levels, especially at the top levels of these associations.