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NCAA regional rules change

By John Manuel
May 13, 2002

weeks
Skip Bertman
College baseball's Division I tournament will have a different look for 2002, with the first significant changes made to the tournament structure since the introduction of the 64-team field for the 1999 season.

The changes, spurred by the events of Sept. 11 and their effect on air travel and security concerns, will make the 16 four-team regional tournaments more, well, regional, with geographic concerns and reduced travel trumping competitive balance for the Division I baseball committee.

That committee itself has seen a change, thanks to the resignation of committee member John Shafer from his post as athletic director at Mississippi. The Southeastern Conference had first dibs at replacing Shafer on the baseball committee, and has nominated Skip Bertman--the former LSU coach and current AD--for the spot.

Bertman's nomination was expected to be approved quickly, so that he might begin participating in the committee's now-weekly conference calls leading up to the selection of regional teams Sunday, May 26. Bertman could be officially approved as a committee member as soon as today.

If he is approved, Bertman will join the 10-member committee that faces new challenges in picking the 64-team field, though some important aspects of regional play have not changed. For example, 16 teams will still receive No. 1 seeds based on merit, using criteria including overall record, conference standings, Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) standings and performance over the season's final 10 games. The committee will still seed the top eight clubs, which could not meet until the College World Series.

However, the NCAA's championships/competition cabinet passed legislation in February that will go into effect for this year's regionals. The 64-team field, which will begin play May 31, will see two significant changes.

First, two teams from the same conference can now be placed in a regional, if the geographical needs of the regional warrant it. Teams from the same conference are prohibited from playing in the first round, so two Southeastern Conference teams cannot be the second and third seeds in a regional, for example. But the No. 1 and 2 seeds could both be from the same conference.

Along with choosing the 16 No. 1 seeds, the committee will decide on 16 host sites the same weekend. This change was known prior to the season; in the past, regional host sites were determined a week before the 64-team field was announced. However, at this point in the deliberations, the committee will move on to matching clubs with regional sites emphasizing geography, not quality.

"No longer will the committee be able to take the remaining 48 teams and take 16 No. 2 seeds, 16 3s and 16 4s," said the NCAA's Jim Wright. "After those 16 top seeds, the rest of the field will be placed geographically. Then, within those regionals, the committee will seed 1-2-3-4.

"So the four teams in regional A could be much stronger than the four in regional B . . . It's clearly not a perfect system, but the committee's going to have to work from these parameters."

Wright, who compiles the RPI and who has in that capacity been in on committee deliberations for more than a decade, said the "magic number" for geographic assignments was 400 miles. Trips under that mileage are bus trips, while longer trips would require more expensive (and presumably less secure) air travel.

The Ramifications

An examination of last year's Stanford regional reveals how it might have changed under the new rules. The Cardinal was a No. 1 seed, with Long Beach State, Texas and Marist the next three teams. Texas and Marist more than likely would not make that trip this year. Instead, the third seed likely would have been California, which instead last year traveled to LSU. Now that the same-conference rule can be waived, the Bears likely would have stayed in the Bay Area.

The fourth seed could have been a team like Fresno State, which instead was sent to the Southern California regional as a third seed. (Fresno is slightly closer to San Francisco than it is to L.A.) Under the new rules, the geographical makeup of the regional comes first. Only after four teams are picked for a regional site does the committee then get down to seeding the clubs after the top seed.

That change likely will lead to even more disparity between regionals. Coaches on the West Coast frequently have complained that the previous setup, where geography already was a major criterion, stacked Western regionals unfairly. The last two regionals in southern California--at USC last year and at Cal State Fullerton in 2000--were prime examples.

The 2000 regional at Fullerton had Loyola Marymount, ranked 13th in the BA poll, as a No. 3 seed, behind top-seeded USC and the host Titans, seeded second. It's generally regarded as the toughest regional in the three years of the 64-team field. Last year's setup at USC included the top-seeded Trojans and second seed Pepperdine, ranked 11th at the time.

This year, the change likely will lead to several stacked regionals in the Southeast, where the SEC is likely to get at least six and possibly seven or eight regional bids. If Alabama earns a No. 1 seed, there's nothing to stop the committee from sending Mississippi or Auburn to Tuscaloosa as a No. 2 or No. 3 seed. It's conceivable that two or three SEC host schools could find themselves playing SEC rivals in their regional.

The Atlantic Coast Conference, with five teams in the top 12 in RPI, could have the same problem. North Carolina visits Georgia Tech next weekend in the last series of the regular season, likely with a host spot on the line. If the Tar Heels are not a host or a No. 1 seed, they could find themselves playing at Wake Forest as a No. 2 seed.

Four To The Floor

Four more teams joined Southern of the Southwestern Athletic Conference as automatic qualifiers for the field of 64. Second-ranked Rice got in by virtue of a series win against No. 22 San Jose State, which clinched at least a tie for the Western Athletic Conference regular-season title. Rice owns all the tiebreakers and the WAC has no postseason tournament, so the Owls earn at least a share of their seventh straight conference title (one from the old Southwest, six WAC).

The other three regional teams, though, got in by winning their league's postseason title.

• Navy, the preseason favorite in the Patriot League, ended Lehigh's most successful season by beating the Mountain Hawks 11-7 in the Patriot League championship game. The Midshipmen (22-23), under second-year coach Steve Whitmyer, earned the league's automatic regional bid, their seventh overall and first since 1999. Junior pitcher/DH Matt Foster was named the tournament MVP. He beat Lehigh in the first round of the three-team event with seven solid innings on the mound, then went 4-for-4 with six RBIs in the finale, including a grand slam. Lehigh ended its season 29-21-1, setting a record for wins in a season.

• Harvard, which won a one-game Rolfe Division playoff Wednesday against Brown, swept Princeton in two games to win the Ivy League championship. It's Harvard's 13th regional bid and first since 1999, when it ended a string of three straight years in regional play.

The Crimson allowed just two runs in the two games, winning 5-1 and 2-1. Righthander Justin Nyweide threw a 154-pitch five-hit complete game in the opener, while Chaney Sheffield and Barry Wahlberg combined to hold the Tigers to five hits in the second game.

Harvard beat Brown 2-1 in a dramatic Rolfe playoff game, as senior righthander Ben Crockett struck out 16 to get the win. Harvard scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth against Brown ace Jonathan Stern, who fanned 14 himself. Pinch-hitter Mickey Kropf hit a two-out, two-strike triple to bring home the tying run, then scored on an RBI single by second baseman Faiz Shakir.

• Host Bethune-Cookman won its fourth consecutive Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament championship, beating Florida A&M 7-3 on Sunday. Senior righthander Jason Dooley struck out six in a complete-game effort as B-CC gave up just seven runs in three tournament games.

The Wildcats (38-20), led by MEAC player of the year Wes Timmons, entered the weekend with an RPI of 69 and could be seeded higher than their usual fourth. B-CC went a respectable 9-12 in games against other Division I teams from Florida, with wins against Central Florida, Florida Atlantic, Jacksonville, Miami, South Florida and Stetson.

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