The NCAA tournament field is complete, and the two biggest surprises both came at the expense of the Southeastern Conference—which trumps every other league when it comes to fan support, visibility and financial influence.
Louisiana State was the highest team in the Ratings Percentage Index rankings (No. 26, according to Boyd's World) to get left out of the field of 64, while Arkansas was the highest RPI team (No. 14) that was not awarded a host site. Instead, the committee awarded UCLA a top seed and a home regional despite an RPI of No. 34, demonstrating a shift away from RPI and toward performance in conference play. The Bruins went 18-9 to win the Pac-10 Conference title, while Arkansas went just 15-15 in the SEC.
And while LSU's robust RPI was not enough to land an at-large bid, St. John's got in with an RPI of No. 54, thanks to its second-place finish in the Big East in the regular season and conference tournament.
"The debate is a consistent one: How do you measure a second-place team versus, for example, a ninth-place SEC team?" said Tim Weiser, chairman of the Division I Baseball Committee, on the ESPN selection show. "We've got a divided group in that regard. Many of the committee members feel like a second-place finish in the Big East is more deserving than an eighth-, ninth-, whatever-place finish in the ACC, SEC, Big 12. That's the balance that leads us back to this process, described as more of an art than a science."
It's a striking reversal from the committee's approach just two years ago, in Weiser's first year as the chairman. In 2009, the committee awarded at-large bids to eighth-place Baylor (10-16 in the Big 12) and ninth-place Oklahoma State (9-16), at the expense of teams like Rhode Island, which ranked 57th in the RPI. This year, St. John's had a comparable resume—though it was just 1-6 against the top 50 in the RPI, compared with LSU's 11-17 mark against the top 50.
"In this year's deliberations, yes, I would say that as a committee, we probably didn't use the RPI as the hammer that maybe it's been perceived as being in previous years," Weiser said afterward in a teleconference with reporters.
He also said LSU was docked for playing so many nonconference games at home, while St. John's got credit for playing 26 road games (going 11-15, including an early-season series win at SoCon tournament champ Georgia Southern and one win in three games at Georgia Tech).
"For some of our committee members, that is a very, very important piece of the discussion because some of our committee members are faced with those same challenges, if you will," Weiser said. "The balancing argument to that is we shouldn't disadvantage those that are in the warmer climates or the locations that give them opportunities to play more home games. So it was a conscious discussion and decision, if you will, about what St. John's is faced with and what teams in the northern climate are faced with when it comes to playing road games."
LSU coach Paul Mainieri, in statements released by the school's sports information office, said he thought the Tigers had done enough to get into the 64-team field. “This team clearly deserved to be in the NCAA Tournament, and I’m so disappointed for the kids that they don’t get the opportunity to do so," he said. "The disappointment of today will be a very strong motivator for our team as we go forward. I know we don’t want to feel like this ever again. I don’t think we should be feeling like this, quite frankly, but we left the decision in the hands of people."
St. John's coach Ed Blankmeyer has never been shy about his belief that the quality of Northern baseball is under-appreciated, and he said that Monday marked a major step forward for Northern teams on a national level. Really, it's more difficult for a team based in New York City to build an RPI in the 50s than it is for an SEC team based in Louisiana to build an RPI in the 20s.
"What we try to do is play the best schedule we can, nonconference-wise," Blankmeyer said. "We've made an effort to travel to Boston College and Maryland to play RPI games, but we're a product of our environment. You can play and win games against opponents around here and go down RPI-wise, versus not playing—what do you do, play or not play? Risk my RPI by playing one of my local opponents? The RPI formula is not the best, but it's what we have. I certainly believe there's a lot more criteria in that room, different philosophies at play."
LSU also was bypassed in favor of Mississippi State, which has a comparable (but slightly worse) RPI, a comparable record against the top 50 and top 100 and won the head-to-head series in Starkville just last weekend. The Bulldogs finished a game ahead in the standings, however, and made it to the conference tournament, while LSU did not.
"That was certainly one of the more difficult discussions that we had," Weiser said. "Although we recognize the head-to-head competition, we also talked about the fact that LSU was tied for ninth in the SEC and tied for fifth in their division. We also talked about the fact that six of those 13 wins that LSU had were against the 11th and 12 place teams in the league. In the end, we were faced with a nonconference schedule that didn't provide for many road games. So when we don't have the information from a nonconference schedule—even though they played a Cal State Fullerton—the fact that we didn't have many road games as a committee, so we had to go back to the conference results, and we didn't think that was strong enough to warrant a selection this year."
Love it or hate it, you have to admit it's a new direction for the committee.
The NCAA talks often about how profitable its Division I postseason is, so it's striking that the committee gave bids to St. John's and Dallas Baptist over LSU, which has a much larger following and more more brand power. And it's striking that UCLA was named a host over Arkansas, which is annually among the national attendance leaders, while the Bruins draw smaller crowds, like most West Coast teams.
Weiser said the committee does not even see the financial bids submitted by host candidates, a change from three or four years ago. So the committee is free to decide hosts based on perceived merit. And this committee valued winning a Pac-10 championship over having a high RPI and more wins against the top 25 (a stat that is skewed toward teams in the Southeast and Texas, where there are more teams and thus more opportunities for teams to pad their RPIs).
"We had a number of committee members that felt strongly about Arkansas," Weiser said. "I think those that were unsure about Arkansas probably pointed to a couple of things. One was their 15-15 conference record, and the other was that they only won four of the 10 league series that they played in. I know at least for a couple of members that was something that was pointed to."
Even if you disagree with Weiser's reasoning, it's hard to get too indignant about the snubbing of a team that went .500 in its league and won just four of 10 conference series, in favor of a team that went 18-9 to win another power league.
"The fact that they were Pac-10 champs was a very valuable thing," Weiser said.
Across the board, conference standings and performance in weekend series seemed to weigh more heavily than in past years. Connecticut earned a No. 2 seed after dominating the Big East, despite an RPI of No. 46—traditionally, a ranking that would have placed UConn on the at-large bubble, and no better than a No. 3 seed. Texas State earned a No. 2 after dominating the Southland in the regular season, overcoming its 1-9 record against the top 50 and RPI ranking of 37th.
It's logical to wonder if the backlash against the 2009 field of 64 has shaped the direction of the committee. But Weiser stopped short of saying that the criteria used this year will carry similar weight going forward.
"To say that sets a precedent going forward, I think that may be a bit of a reach.," he said. "Because we try hard not to box ourselves into, OK, this is what we did last year, so we've got to do it again this year. I think each team's different, each year's different and you kind of have to set aside what you've done in the past and not let it bias you as you go forward."
For the second straight year, Weiser's committee has given us a largely well-constructed field. This year, there is no obvious "regional of death," stacked with powerhouses. Teams mostly seem seeded appropriately, and our quibbles are minor.
The only other major point of contention involved the final national seeds. The committee went with Florida State, Texas and Rice over Texas A&M and Arizona State. There was no Western team that truly deserved a national seed, so I'm glad the committee didn't try to shoehorn a national seed into the West solely for geographic reasons. And I liked Weiser's explanation for the omission of Big 12 regular-season co-champ and tournament champion Texas A&M. That explanation included an acknowledgement that the season-ending shoulder injury to ace John Stilson factored in, but was not the most important factor.
"What we had to go with was that that final weekend in the Big 12 play, Texas took two out of three from A&M," Weiser said. "Rice earlier in the year . . . took two from A&M. So we had that kind of discussion already, and then as a committee we were informed about the injury, and I know that our policy requires us to consider that. So I think for some members of the committee, that kind of was the last piece to the puzzle for them when it came to considering A&M."
It was a thoughtful, rational answer—consistent with most of Weiser's explanations Monday. Each committee is different, and each weighs selection and seeding factors in its own way. This committee placed a premium on strong performance in conference play over RPI considerations. Whether or not you think that is a good thing depends upon your perspective. And there are a lot of passionate fans in Fayetteville and Baton Rouge who have a much different perspective than the smaller fan bases in Westwood and Queens.
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