The NCAA tournament field of 64 was released Monday, and the Division I Baseball Committee did an outstanding job constructing it. In fact, we have no major objections, only a few minor quibbles with seedings and pairings.
The committee's thinking was was in line with our own, as the eight national seeds were the same eight teams listed in our final projection last night. All but two of the super regional pairings were the same as our projected pairings (the exceptions were Columbia-Charlottesville and Louisville-Tallahassee, which we had flipped).
And 63 of the 64 teams in our final projection made the NCAA tournament field. The only one we missed: Clemson made the field instead of Central Florida. And we actually had the Tigers in our field on Sunday morning (with UC Irvine out), before making a late change Sunday night. Clemson's inclusion is perfectly defensible, and so is UCF's omission.
All of those teams at the edge of the bubble had flaws in their resumes, but at least Clemson finished the season 11-4 in its final 15 games, including a pair of quality nonconference wins against UNLV and two wins in the ACC tournament (one against Miami). The Tigers also went 15-14 in the ACC to finish fourth in the No. 3 RPI conference. Both teams struggled against the top 50 (Clemson was 7-12, UCF was 5-11), and they are close in the RPI (Clemson is No. 50, UCF was No. 48, per Boyd's World). It was a coin flip for us, and if the committee's coin landed with a Tiger head face up, so be it.
"From our end, I certainly understand the committee's got a tough choice, and they've got to weigh a lot of different aspects," UCF coach Terry Rooney said. "I feel like we did some really good things this year, and unfortunately we also had some opportunities we didn't take advantage of."
Rooney pointed to an abundance of one-run losses that could have gone either way as a reason for UCF's downfall. But he expressed satisfaction with what his team accomplished (36-23 overall and second place in the AAC) considering how much it turned over its roster from a year ago.
See also: Field of 64 schedule
"We finished second in a great baseball league," he said. "Obviously, the first goal is to get to the NCAA regionals, and unfortunately we didn't get there. But with 24 new players on the roster and a large majority of players returning next year, we're looking forward to what we believe will be a very successful 2015 season. With that many new players, the majority of the year is devoted to teaching kids how to play and win at this level. Now with so many returning players, I feel like that's been accomplished and we can focus on a few other areas. Where we started and finished, I feel good about what we did."
The committee revealed that the final four teams in the field, in no particular order, were Clemson, UC Irvine, North Carolina and Texas A&M. The first four teams to miss the cut were UCF, Mercer, Southern California and West Virginia. It was a surprise to see the Trojans and Mountaineers on that first four out list rather than Illinois and Western Carolina, but again, there were enough holes in all of those teams' cases to easily justify their exclusions.
It was also a minor surprise Sunday night to see Louisville earn a host spot over Washington, leaving just two regionals west of the Rockies for the first time since 2004. Washington's second-place finish in the Pac-12 and the advantages of placing a regional in a new location--where there is a brand-new ballpark to showcase--weren't enough to overcome a soft nonconference strength of schedule, according to committee chairman Dennis Farrell, the commissioner of the Big West. Farrell said five teams were competing for the final two host spots: Oklahoma State (surprisingly), Louisville, Washington, Houston and Texas.
"I think what concerned the committee about Washington was their nonconference strength of schedule, ranked I believe 216, somewhere in that neighborhood," Farrell said. "That certainly played against them. Oklahoma State, playing in the Big 12 championship certainly helped them, as well as winning the regular season in the Big 12. And Louisville had the dominance over Houston this year with the series sweep (in Houston), and was in the championship game."
Once again, Louisville was a perfectly defensible choice as a host, although we would have gone with the Huskies. Washington hurt its cause by losing its last two series, especially a home series against struggling UCLA this weekend. Louisville is higher in the RPI (No. 20 vs. No. 24), and at least Louisville won the American Athletic Conference regular-season title.
My biggest objection was seeing College of Charleston as a No. 4 seed in Gainesville. The Cougars are the highest-ranked team in the RPI to get a No. 4 seed (No. 53), and at 41-17, they have more wins than any other team in their regional, albeit against a lesser schedule (though they did win two of three from North Carolina, the No. 3 seed in Gainesville, to open the season). The Cougars should have been a No. 3 seed, while Ivy League champion Columbia (the No. 3 seed in Coral Gables) should have been a No. 4. The Lions are No. 35 in the RPI thanks to an 18-15 road record and 10th-ranked non-conference strength of schedule, but are just 0-4 against the top 50 and 4-10 against the top 100. College of Charleston is 2-5 against the top 50 and 7-7 against the top 100, but its non-conference strength of schedule ranked just 179th, with 17 of those 41 victories coming against teams 201-and-higher in the RPI.
Columbia has a good club, but it is startling to see a team with no baseball scholarships as a No. 3 seed. So No. 2 national seed Florida winds up with the toughest opening-round opponent, while non-national seed Miami opens against Bethune-Cookman (No. 207 in the RPI), although B-CU ace Montana Durapau is not an easy assignment in the opener.
"All of the brackets are put together with the principle of trying to limit the amount to travel that occurs for the three teams that have to go there," Farrell said. "Both of those regionals, you have the fourth seed that is a driving team to both Gainesville and Coral Gables. The No. 2 and 3 seeds in both of those regionals are flying. That being said, we also try to balance the competitiveness of each of the regionals as much as possible, so we look at the combined RPI of the three teams that are seeded 1, 2 and 3. In this case, the Coral Gables bracket has combined RPI of 67. Gainesville has a combined RPI of 72. That's for the 1, 2 and 3 seeds, not the 4 seeds."
The Gators-Hurricanes super regional pairing is also stale, but Farrell pointed out that those two teams have not been paired in the last two years. The committee tried to avoid repeating matchups from the last two years and mostly succeeded, avoiding Louisville/Vanderbilt, Clemson/South Carolina and Texas A&M/TCU, for instance. Alabama will head to Tallahassee for the second year in a row, however.
The regionals present some very compelling storylines. A few that jump out:
• The Houston Regional features Rice, Texas and Texas A&M, three powerhouse rival schools with plenty of history from their days in the old Southwest Conference. The Longhorns and Aggies have not faced off in a regional before because they were in the same conference, but now that A&M is in the Southeastern Conference, the committee was able to construct this made-for-TV regional. George Mason is the No. 4 seed.
• The basketball-themed regional in Louisville is interesting, as hoops powerhouses Louisville, Kentucky and Kansas are joined by Kent State. Those schools have combined for 14 men’s national championships on the hardwood. The potential for a Cardinals-Wildcats postseason showdown is exciting.
• In Nashville, Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin welcomes his old mentor, Clemson coach Jack Leggett. Third-seeded Clemson and second-seeded Oregon are preseason top 15 teams that could be dangerous.
• Mississippi State is the No. 2 seed in Lafayette, which is paired with Oxford in the super regional round. So if Mississippi State and Ole Miss can win their regionals, they will face off in an apocalyptic super regional. But both of those regionals look strong, as No. 6 national seed Louisiana-Lafayette and MSU are joined by red-hot San Diego State as well as Jackson State, while Ole Miss welcomes Washington (a strong No. 2 seed that could have hosted), ACC champion Georgia Tech (a strong No. 3 seed that could have been a 2), and Jacksonville State.
• Bloomington gets our vote for friendliest regional for the host. Indiana State as the RPI to be a No. 2 seed (No. 21), but the Sycamores are just 3-3 against the top 50 and went 0-2 in the MVC tournament; we projected them as a No. 3 seed. Stanford was a bubble team until the final weekend and wound up as the No. 3 seed in Bloomington. And fourth-seeded Youngstown State has the worst record in the tournament (16-36).
• Besides Houston and Oxford, the Stillwater Regional strikes us as particularly rugged. Top-seeded Oklahoma State welcomes No. 2 Nebraska, No. 3 Cal State Fullerton and No. 4 Binghamton. All of those teams are seeded appropriately, but all seem dangerous.