Here are some quick thoughts on some of Friday’s developments:
- We’ve been speculating for the last two weeks about Gonzaga’s chances to earn an at-large bid, but the Bulldogs might render all that talk moot. Gonzaga ace righthander Clayton Mortensen went the distance in a 6-4 victory over Brian Matusz and No. 5 San Diego in the opener of the West Coast Conference championship series. San Diego was hotter than a firecracker a few weeks ago, but the Toreros have had two weeks off, and sometimes that’s all it takes to derail a hot streak. We’ll see if sophomore lefty Josh Romanski can get USD going tomorrow, but right now the Zags are just a win away from winning the WCC’s automatic bid. By winning at least the first game of the best-of-three conference title series at San Diego, Gonzaga has padded its at-large resume, just in case the Toreros storm back. And if Gonzaga closes it out tomorrow, USD’s chances at earning a national seed will take a big hit.
- South Carolina stayed alive in the SEC tournament by beating Florida 5-3, ending the Gators’ season in the process. The Gators finish up at 29-30 and are not eligible for the NCAA tournament, which likely opens the door for Alabama to receive an at-large bid despite its two-and-out performance in Hoover. It is also possible that Kentucky could get in as the eighth team from the SEC despite failing to qualify for the conference tournament. The Wildcats’ mediocre RPI (56), poor conference record (13-16) and weak nonconference schedule is likely to quash their chances, but stranger things have happened.
- Another possible beneficiary of the poor finishes for Florida and Alabama is the Big 12 Conference. Baylor is now 2-0 in pool play after handing Missouri its second loss of the tournament, 10-5. The young, talented Bears seemed to come on down the stretch, winning seven of their final 10 regular-season games, and their RPI is strong (31). With two wins in the conference tournament, Baylor might have already played its way into a regional, stepping into the vacuum created by Florida’s (and possibly Alabama’s) failure. Baylor can essentially wrap up an at-large berth with a win tomorrow against Oklahoma, which would propel the Bears to the Big 12 championship game. Whether Oklahoma beats Oklahoma State tonight or not, the Sooners can punch their ticket to the conference title game with a win over Baylor, because the head-to-head result in pool play is the tiebreaker. That would give Oklahoma a chance to earn the conference’s automatic bid, but even if the Sooners lost in the championship game, three wins would likely be enough to get them into a regional. Despite the Sooners’ strong RPI (26), I still think they have more work to do than Baylor because of their terrible second half, during which they lost six of their final eight conference series. But the top seven teams in the Big 12 could all earn regional bids, something that seemed pretty unlikely just a week or two ago.
- In order to advance to the Big East championship game, Rutgers needed to beat Louisville twice today, and Connecticut needed to beat South Florida twice. The Scarlet Knights and Huskies both pulled off the impressive sweeps and will battle for the league’s automatic bid on Saturday. By winning two games in the tournament, Louisville can feel good about its chances for an at-large bid, and Rutgers is certainly safe. Top-seeded St. John’s won one game and is probably in decent shape because it won the conference’s regular-season title. If Rutgers wins tomorrow, the Knights, Johnnies and Cardinals are all in. If UConn wins, one of those teams could get squeezed out, because I’m just not sure the committee is ready to make the Big East a four-bid league. All three have RPIs between 41 and 50, so it won’t be easy to separate them. Four bids isn’t out of the question, but if one team gets squeezed, it could be St. John’s.
- Don’t forget to keep an eye on the West Coast this weekend. The Pac-10 and Big West do not have conference tournaments, but the Oregon State-UCLA and California-Washington series could both determine bids in the Pac-10. UC Irvine can still win the Big West title by sweeping UC Riverside, and both teams are playing for regional host sites. Long Beach State is also in that mix, and if the Dirtbags take their series from Cal State Fullerton, they could host even without winning the conference title thanks to their sterling RPI (nine). The defending champion Beavers probably need to sweep UCLA to have a legit shot at an at-large bid, and Cal needs to at least win its series to be in the discussion.