Jim Foster couldn’t have put it any better.
When informed that Oklahoma State won just two of its nine conference series and finished in ninth place in a 10-team league, but still earned an at-large regional bid, Rhode Island’s coach had some choice words for the Division I baseball committee.
"They should be locked up for that one," Foster said. "That’s a crime."
Foster’s Rams actually went 1-1 against the Cowboys in Stillwater back in March. URI also notched wins over Miami and Ohio State, part of a very solid nonconference schedule that boosted the Rams to 57th in the Ratings Percentage Index, according to warrennolan.com. To put that into context, it’s just two places below Southern Mississippi, which gets an RPI boost just by rolling out of bed in the Southeast. It’s much, much more difficult to build that kind of RPI as a New England team in the Atlantic 10 Conference—especially with a program that isn’t fully funded, with just 2.6 scholarships spread over the entire roster. But the Rams fell to Xavier in the finals of the A-10 tournament, and the committee chose not to reward them for their 37-win season.
"I thought we did enough," Foster said. "When you’ve got three starters like we do, and the story that we are, it’s just the right thing to do. I feel bad for the kids, because they worked their tails off to get there. They had some big wins. I know we didn’t get it done in the conference tournament, but that happens. I thought if we won a couple of games in the conference tournament, which we did, I thought that’d be good enough.
"But when they chose Oklahoma State in the Clemson Regional as a No. 3 seed, I knew we were in trouble. I just thought that was going to be the spot, and I don’t think (the Cowboys) even made their conference tournament. I figured it was something like someone from one of these big conferences was on the committtee."
Indeed, the committee chairman is Big 12 deputy commissioner Tim Weiser, who struggled to explain the rationale for including Oklahoma State and Baylor in the field of 64.
"Oklahoma State, no doubt, had some losses there in conference play that was a factor," Weiser said in a conference call with media this afternoon. "But we looked at the RPI issue, we looked at strength of schedule. We were aware of their conference success or failures, and all of that was compared to information we still had available."
Weiser repeatedly cited nonconference strength of schedule as a key factor in the committee’s deliberations—he even used it to justify Cal State Fullerton as the No. 2 national seed, even though it finished five games behind UC Irvine in the Big West and lost the head-to-head series against the Anteaters, who earned the No. 6 national seed (more on Irvine shortly). But the committee apparently did not place the same weight on the challenging nonconference slates put together by Rhode Island or Missouri State (which won a series at Oregon State in Portland, won a home series against inexplicable No. 2 regional seed Oral Roberts, and opened the year with a quality series at Middle Tennessee State, though it was swept there). And the Rams and Bears actually finished at or near the top of their conferences. But bad losses cost those mid-majors.
"I think our committee certainly considered those teams," Weiser said. "Twelve of the losses Rhode Island had were to teams rated above 100 in the RPI. Those are significant issues. Talking about Rhode Island, Missouri State, Eastern Illinois or Duke, those are all things we consider."
Rhode Island, Missouri State and Eastern Illinois have no choice but to play teams with poor RPIs because of their conferences and their locations in cold-weather climes. Is Rhode Island supposed to travel to Texas to play midweek games all year long the way Baylor and Oklahoma State can? Of course not.
Eastern Illinois was left out largely because of its RPI (69th). But like Rhode Island and Missouri State, the Panthers went out and challenged themselves in nonconference play, winning an early series against fellow mid-major regional contender Southeastern Louisiana, plus individual games against Oklahoma, Indiana, South Florida, Illinois and Indiana State. Eastern Illinois can’t schedule much better than that, and the Panthers certainly took care of business in the Ohio Valley Conference, going 14-4 to win the league by 2 1/2 games, even with star center fielder Brett Nommensen injured for the second half of the season. But EIU went just 0-2 in the conference tournament.
"Two things: The selection committee is telling baseball programs that four days, the conference tournament, is more important than three months of baseball," Panthers coach Jim Schmitz said in an e-mail. "It is also telling programs not in the power conferences around the country, no matter what you do you won’t make the NCAAs unless you win your tournament. Conference championships don’t mean anything anymore so why play the conference schedule? We should all play who we want to play during the year to help our RPI and win-loss record and then meet in Paducah for the OVC Tournament. The NCAA really failed this really good baseball team."
There were other major flaws in this year’s field of 64, which is constructed much more poorly than last year’s field. Some other thoughts:
• I made the case for Tulane over Southern Miss already, but here’s a recap: Tulane won its last six conference series, while Southern Miss lost its last four. Tulane won the head-to-head series at USM, though the Golden Eagles beat Tulane twice in the CUSA tournament. Still, Southern Miss leads the season series just 3-2 and all five games were played in Hattiesburg—that’s a wash. But Tulane also has a great series win against East Carolina, while USM did not win a series all year against a team that was even close to contending for regionals. Yet the Golden Eagles got in, and the Green Wave did not. Weiser’s explanation was predictable, and it’s exactly why I speculated last night that USM was probably more likely to get in, despite my field of 64 projection.
"We did have some head-to-head competition we could use," Weiser said, citing USM’s 3-2 edge against Tulane this year but failing to mention that all five games were in Hattiesburg. "We also knew the RPI was the difference between the two."
Still, both teams have much stronger cases than Baylor or Oklahoma State. I would have been fine with Tulane and Southern Miss getting in if Baylor and Oklahoma State were omitted in favor of Missouri State or Rhode Island. But the inclusion of the two Big 12 teams over Tulane really galled Green Wave coach Rick Jones.
"When you’re in one of the top six leagues in the country (as Conference USA is in the RPI), and you finish third in that league (in the regular-season standings, as Tulane did), and you have a win over Irvine and a win over LSU, and you win two games in your tournament, and we have two host teams out of our league—and we get left out for a team that can’t make its own conference tournament out of eight teams? I think there’s an issue there," Jones said. "I don’t think that’s fair."
• Weiser failed to explain how the committee members paired UC Irvine and Virginia in the Irvine Regional. The Cavaliers looked great winning the ACC tournament this week, beating three ranked teams in the process, and if you count the tournament, only one ACC team (Florida State) has won more games against ACC teams this year than Virginia (which has won 20). I didn’t think Virginia was a slam dunk to host because of its awful nonconference schedule, but when I saw that East Carolina was hosting, I figured Virginia has to go there as a No. 1 seed, because the Cavaliers have a superior resume to the Pirates at every turn—except one, and that’s Weiser’s favorite fig leaf, nonconference strength of schedule.
But even if you accept ECU as a top seed and Virginia as a No. 2, the Cavaliers must be considered one of the strongest No. 2 seeds. So how do they get shipped across country to play in a regional hosted by a national seed? And not just any national seed, but the team that has been the nation’s best just about all season long. And if that weren’t enough, Virginia must face San Diego State ace Stephen Strasburg in its opener, and the No. 4 seed in the regional is defending national champion Fresno State. Even though it needs to play a stronger nonconference schedule—a fact no one outside of coach Brian O’Connor seems to dispute—Virginia deserved better, and so did Irvine.
"I can’t disagree with you about it being a strong regional—I think it is," Weiser said. "It’s important for us to recognize that Virginia was sixth in the ACC (in the regular season, though the top six were separated by just 2 1/2 games—or half of Irvine’s margin of victory over Fullerton in the Big West). They had a triple-digit (ranked) nonconference schedule . . . They are a strong team; that is a strong regional."
• Rice and Florida State should have been national seeds, though at least decent cases can be made for Oklahoma and Florida. Even with its two best pitchers hurt for most of the season, Rice was 21-9 against the top 100 teams in the RPI, and it finished strong by winning the CUSA tournament. And Florida State won the regular-season ACC title and reached the finals of the conference tournament. We didn’t have time to ask Weiser about the national seed deliberations, as the conference call was cut off a half-hour before its scheduled conclusion, evidently so Weiser could catch a flight to see his son play in the Division II World Series in Cary, N.C.
• Some of the super regional pairings were screwy. It’s hard to see how Florida and Florida State aren’t paired, given geographic proximity and the fact that both teams rank in the eight to 10 range among No. 1 seeds, so that would be an equitable matchup as well as a logical geographic matchup. Instead, Florida State is paired with Oklahoma, and Florida with Georgia Tech. Weiser admitted that a desire to avoid repeating the traditional Florida-FSU matchup did play a part in the discussion here.
Far worse, though, is the committee’s decision to pair the Baton Rouge Regional with the Houston Regional. Both LSU and Rice should be national seeds, but barring that, Rice must be considered one of the strongest top seeds. That’s a harsh way to reward Louisiana State for winning the SEC regular-season and tournament crowns, as well as being unfair to Rice.
• In the end, there are just too many head-scratchers to overlook with this field. The way the committee snubbed deserving mid-majors like Rhode Island and Missouri State in favor of unworthy Big 12 bottom feeders, you get the feeling Weiser would be just fine getting rid of automatic qualifiers. Then all 10 teams from the Big 12 could play in regionals with all 12 SEC teams. Who needs mid-majors like Fresno State?
"It’s hard for me to say with 100 percent certainty that we got it right," Weiser said. "There’s always going to be questions. There are always going to be disappointments, and there are going to be teams that are disappointed. But unless we want to do away with automatic qualifiers, we’re going to be faced with this issue."
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