The bubble teams for the 64-team field really boil down to a small group, for me: West Coast bubbles (Gonzaga, Oregon State and UCLA) versus Southeast bubbles (Alabama, College of Charleston, Tennessee, Western Carolina). The Midwest bubble teams pretty much sorted themselves out (Baylor over Oklahoma, Houston out, Minnesota not quite enough).
One way to measure these teams against each other is by RPI, but not just the raw overall number. If you pay attention, you know the RPI has flaws, but astute observers also realize the RPI can help line up teams with similar geographic locations. So let’s do that–let’s line up our bubble teams within their regions. I’ll define the West as Hawaii (duh), California, Oregon, Washington, the Four Corners states, Nevada and the Rocky Mountain states (which essentially have no D-I teams anyway). We’ll use RPIs at www.boydsworld.com because the official ones aren’t updated yet.
Among West teams, Oregon State ranks seventh, UCLA 10th and Gonzaga 14th. Yes, Gonzaga played for the West Coast Conference title, and the ‘Zags beat San Diego three times (in six games) and won a series with Pepperdine. Finishing with the third highest RPI in what is usually a two-bid league really isn’t the best thing on its resume though. Oregon State certainly should have finished better, and no 10-14 Pac-10 team has reached the NCAA tournament in the 64-team era. But 36 spots in RPI is one thing; seven spots just in the West is quite another. Oregon State really deserves to get in more than Gonzaga; by the measure we have, Oregon State is better than Gonzaga, same with UCLA.
The 14th-best team in the West probably won’t get a bid, even if it deserves it, and I actually think Brigham Young has as much of a case–BYU won eight of its last 10 and beat Gonzaga head to head, and 76 (16th in the West) is a pretty good RPI for a team that had to play Air Force three times.
On to the Southeast bubble teams . . . to measure those four schools–’Bama, CofC, WCU and the Vols–I just focused on the schools in the 11 former Confederate states, trading Texas for Kentucky (because the U. of Kentucky is in the SEC). The results are not encouraging for the SEC schools. In this measure College of Charleston, at 40 overall in the RPI, is 19th in the “southeast” and Western Carolina is 21st. Tennessee checks in at 29, and Alabama’s down at 32.
Alabama beat Tennessee two of three head-to-head, both schools went 3-1 in their final four SEC series, and Tennessee especially can attribute its good finish to health. With Julio Borbon, this was a better team, and that’s the team it is now. Both went 5-5 in their final 10 games; Alabama’s league record was better but they were tied in the loss column at 15. Frankly neither team “deserves” to get in. SEC teams have to be not very good to put up RPIs that low. I think the Borbon injury factor gets Tennessee in from the committee’s standpoint, and Alabama’s 15-15 SEC regular-season record is a fine fig leaf if the committee wants cover for including the southeast’s 32nd-best team to a 64-team tournament.
Gonzaga’s RPI is 70, but it’s the 14th-best team in the West. The 14th-best team in the southeast by RPI is Mississippi State, with an overall RPI of 24. It doesn’t tell me everything, but it tells me Gonaga is as good relative to its true peers as Mississippi State is relative to its peers. And to assume the 29th team in the southeast is better than the 14th team in the West, well, that just seems arrogant.
Can we envision a world with just five SEC teams in the NCAA tournament? The low in the 64-team field era is six in 2000. I can’t see it happening but it’s probably what should happen. If the NCAA baseball committee truly doesn’t care what conference the teams come from–and members say they don’t, year after year–they won’t take Alabama and Tennessee, just because the SEC usually is the best conference in the country. They’ll take teams from the southeast that earned it more, like Charleston and Western Carolina or even Troy (53 overall, 27 “southeast” RPI).
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