New Mexico coach Ray Birmingham felt like a father waiting for his first child to be born. Except the hospital room was jam-packed with other nervous fathers.
Birmingham and the Lobos gathered at Coach's, a restaurant in Albuquerque owned by a UNM alumnus to watch the NCAA tournament selection show on Monday. He said he was optimistic, but nervous.
"It's that anticipation of one way or the other, and what do I do if something goes wrong?" Birmingham said. "We had a big crowd, and the biggest worry I had is, if we don't get in, what do I do with all these people in this restaurant?"
He never had to deal with that worst-case scenario. New Mexico's name flashed on the television screen as a No. 3 seed in the Fullerton regional—the school's first trip to regionals since 1962.
"They got it right, man," said an elated Birmingham.
They sure did. The Division I Baseball Committee took loads of grief in this space and elsewhere each of the last two years, when it made some egregious choices while filling out its field. This year's field has a few small surprises, but no big ones, and not a single omission or inclusion that I would describe as indefensible. By and large, the committee did better this year than it has in years.
New Mexico and California were the final two teams in the field in our last projection Sunday night, and both those teams got in—though it appears the Golden Bears weren't even on the bubble, because they landed a surprising No. 2 seed. But that was one of the biggest eyebrow-raisers in this field, and that's a good thing.
Tim Weiser, chair of the committee, said the overall strength of the Pacific-10 conference was a major reason the Golden Bears earned that No. 2 seed in the Normal Regional. The Pac-10 is the No. 1-rated conference in the Ratings Percentage Index, according to WarrenNolan.com, and it was rewarded for its banner season by sending a record eight teams to regionals—three more than it has ever sent before.
The last Pac-10 team, Arizona, was the biggest surprise of the field, but again it wasn't a huge surprise, considering we pegged the Wildcats as the 65th team in our final projection. Arizona certainly has a strong enough RPI (No. 24, according to Boyd's World), and it has quality series wins against Cal State Fullerton, Oregon and Washington State on its resume. In the end, those factors outweighed Arizona's horrid last six weeks, which included six straight series losses, two of them against Cal State Bakersfield and last-place Southern California. Weiser did acknowledge in a conference call with reporters that Arizona's poor finish was part of the discussion, but it was not the overriding factor.
"In Arizona's case, there was probably some discussion about the Cal State Fullerton series, and they took two out of three if I'm not mistaken," he said. "They swept Washington State. For me, how teams are playing down the stretch is an important piece of it."
But for Arizona to miss out, another team needed to have a strong finishing kick and a more complete resume, and no team met those criteria. Kentucky had more wins against the top 50 teams in the RPI (16) than Arizona (12), but UK was nine spots lower in the RPI and missed a golden opportunity to cement its resume when it lost a series at last-place Georgia in the final weekend. A week earlier, Kentucky had swept Louisiana State, but even that week was not without warts, as UK lost midweek games to Indiana and Lipscomb heading into the LSU series.
It couldn't have helped that Kentucky failed to reach the SEC tournament, but it also was far from the deciding factor. After all, North Carolina received an at-large bid (as the No. 3 seed in Norman) despite missing the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. That was also unprecedented; the ACC had never sent more than seven teams to regionals, but this year it will send eight. The committee has chosen teams in the past that missed conference tournaments in the Big 12 and SEC, but this is the first time it has happened in the ACC. The reason it happened is because North Carolina finished strong, winning three of its last four series including a sweep of Virginia Tech, and had a robust RPI (No. 21).
"We have not suggested to the membership that they have to make a conference tournament (to make regionals)," Weiser said. "Part of that is because they have different qualifications—some take four, some take six, some take all. So we really have not allowed that to be a criteria. In the past we have taken some that have not made conference tournaments. In North Carolina's case, the argument can be made that they've had a very good season, and certainly as you look at the 34 teams available to us, they factored in as one of the teams that was deserving of that invitation."
The committee wasn't as kind to another ACC team—Florida State. For the second straight year, the ACC tournament champion will be sent on the road for regionals, as Florida State followed last year's winner, Virginia, as ACC teams sent packing. Just like Virginia last year, Florida State finished with an RPI inside the top 15, and FSU was just a win away from winning its division and being the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament. So if any team has a gripe today, it is the Seminoles, which earned the No. 1 seed in the Norwich Regional, hosted by No. 2 Connecticut.
I support the committee's decision to place a regional in Norwich, however. That regional will not draw as well as a Tallahassee Regional would have, but it is a good thing to showcase the college game in parts of the country that are not traditional hotbeds. This is the first regional in the Northeast since Rutgers hosted in 2000. Believe it or not, the Northeast is crazy for baseball—why not try to direct some of that passion toward the college brand?
Besides, UConn is as worthy of a host as a Northeast team could be, having won 47 games and built an RPI of No. 23—that's awfully hard to do in that part of the country. The Huskies also won more games on the road (21) than any other team in the nation. Good for the committee for rewarding UConn for having the best season by a Northeast team in a very long time. I think the Huskies had a fine case to be a No. 1 seed also, although Florida State is certainly more deserving of that.
I would have made Florida State a host over Arkansas or Miami, but Weiser said the final discussion came down to Tallahassee vs. Norwich for the final hosting site. Arkansas and Miami weren't even on the hosting bubble.
"Having Connecticut host took up the bulk of our discussion; I'm not sure there was nearly as much debate about the Arkansas discussion as there was for the Connecticut/Florida State question," Weiser said.
There probably should have been, considering Arkansas lost 10 of its last 15 games while Florida State only had one bad weekend down the stretch—at Clemson last week—and it rebounded from that sweep by winning the ACC tournament. Arkansas, meanwhile, went 0-2 in the SEC tournament.
But Arkansas is a very defensible host choice thanks to its overall body of work, which includes road series wins at Cal, Mississippi and Vanderbilt, plus a home sweep of Alabama. Miami is less deserving, having lost all five series (including one at Florida State) it played against ranked teams. But the Hurricanes were No. 8 in the RPI and had an 18-14 record against the top 50, so it seems they were never in any jeopardy at all of missing out on hosting.
Couple of other nuggets:
• Georgia Tech earned the final national seed over the likes of South Carolina, Texas Christian and Cal State Fullerton, as predicted here. All four of those teams had cases for national seeds, but none had an overwhelming case; I would have been fine with any of the four, or Auburn.
• Arizona State was a no-brainer for the No. 1 national seed. "Although we had a lot of debate on the seven/eighth seeds, I cannot recall us having any debate on Arizona State at No. 1," Weiser said. "I think that reinforces our confidence in Arizona State being where they are."
Arizona State was the right choice for the No. 1 national seed, but how in the world did Virginia wind up as the No. 5, especially behind Coastal Carolina? That question is irrelevant, since only the top eight teams are seeded and being a higher seed gives no advantage in prospective super regional matchups, but it's still perplexing.
• The Citadel won the Southern Conference regular-season and tournament titles, yet somehow wound up as a No. 3 seed while College of Charleston is a No. 2. I thought both teams deserved No. 2 seeds, but if only one was going to be a No. 2, it should have been the Bulldogs. It's not like RPI was a separating factor; CofC is 26th, and The Citadel is 32nd, too small of an edge to be a deciding factor. That's a strange one.
• The Los Angeles regional is the strongest, in my opinion, but it does not compare to past "groups of death" like last year's Irvine Regional or the 2008 Long Beach Regional. Yes, Louisiana State is red-hot and will be a dangerous No. 2 seed for UCLA, the No. 6 national seed. Yes, Irvine is a dangerous, experienced No. 3, and Kent State is a talented No. 4. But all of those teams are seeded properly—LSU should be a No. 2, Irvine should be a 3, Kent State should be a 4. It's a competitive field, certainly, but it's not like last year when Virginia should have been a No. 1 seed and instead had to face the best pitcher in the country on the other side of the nation in a regional hosted by the No. 1 team in the nation.
Otherwise, though, nothing stands out. Congratulations to the committee for a job well done, and congratulations to the bubble teams that found their way into the field of 64. Now the hard part begins.
"We've got 45 more minutes of celebration, then I've got marine day at 2 o'clock," Birmingham said this afternoon. "I can't tell you how elated I am, how proud of the kids. Now we've got to go fly to the regional. That's awesome."
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