The 64-team NCAA tournament field was announced Monday, and it featured some real head-scratchers--but no egregious snubs or inclusions. The most baffling aspects of the field involved seeding; a number of teams were seeded illogically, but at least they are all in the tournament.
Let’s begin our analysis of the field by looking at the at-large debate.
• Bubble teams that got in: Texas A&M, Sam Houston State, New Mexico, San Francisco, Coastal Carolina, Oklahoma State, Illinois, Florida, William & Mary, UC Santa Barbara. Those are all defensible choices, and we are glad that the Division I Baseball Committee included UCSB despite its No. 57 RPI ranking. Teams that low in the RPI don’t usually get at-large bids, but the Gauchos deserved to get in after finishing second in the Big West and winning seven of their last eight series. It probably helped UCSB that the new committee chairman is Big West commissioner Dennis Farrell. But it is refreshing that the committee did not use the RPI as a crutch and dismiss UCSB out of hand simply because of an RPI ranking outside the top 55.
• The Tribe gets in as the CAA’s third team thanks to a second-place finish in the No. 8 RPI conference. William & Mary ranks 45th in the RPI. We regarded the Tribe as a bubble team that could go either way, and we have no major problem with their inclusion.
• We wrote in our final projection last night that we expected the committee to reward Florida for its strength of schedule, and that’s what happened. The Gators are in as a No. 3 seed in Bloomington, while Auburn is out, as we anticipated. You can make an argument for either team--Auburn’s argument is based on its strong finish, which included three straight quality series wins, including one against the Gators. Florida finished with three straight series losses, but its nonconference schedule was much stronger, and it has more quality wins and finished a game ahead of the Tigers in the standings. We’re OK with the Gators getting in.
In a conference call with reporters, Farrell made it clear that nonconference strength of schedule was a major factor in Florida’s inclusion over Auburn. Florida’s nonconference schedule ranked among the nation’s top 10, while Auburn’s nonconference SOS ranked No. 155.
“I think the committee was certainly impressed--not only did (the Gators) have the No. 1 overall strength of schedule, which obviously comes along with being in the SEC, but they also challenged themselves in the nonconference,” Farrell said.
• It isn’t easy to compare Florida (which went 29-28 against the nation’s toughest schedule) with Campbell (which went 49-10 but played the No. 237 schedule, according to WarrenNolan.com). From a philosophical standpoint, is it better to take the team that finished barely over .500 against an elite schedule, or the team that dominated against a much lesser schedule? Considering how difficult it is for Campbell--a small Christian school that isn’t allowed to play home games on Sundays because of university rules--to schedule weekend series against teams from power conferences, it is impressive that the Camels were able to construct a No. 42 RPI against a soft schedule.
“We certainly discussed their scheduling abilities, but at the end of the day, we have to rely on just what’s happened on the field, so we looked at Campbell’s nonconference strength of schedule, and it was very weak,” Farrell said. “They only had one game against a top 50 opponent, and that was a loss to North Carolina State. We also look at regional advisory rankings, kind of the (subjective) review we were looking for. The Atlantic regional advisory committee ranked Coastal (Carolina) above Campbell, so that played very heavily on our minds as well.”
The regional advisory committees include two coaches from every conference. The fact that recommendations of those coaches evidently played a big role in ranking Coastal above Campbell really rankled Camels coach Greg Goff, who pointed out that his team beat out Coastal for the Big South regular-season title (the two teams did not play in the regular season), went further in the conference tournament, and led the league in scoring and ERA. Campbell also had the stronger RPI (No. 42 according to Boyd’s World, while Coastal ranks 48th).
“If you’re going to take a team, we won the regular season outright. We have a better RPI,” Goff said. “But you’re going to let some coaches dictate who’s the best team? There’s personal feelings involved. Those guys that voted probably got beaten by Campbell for the first time, and didn’t like it. (They voted for the Chanticleers) because they won the league seven years in a row. They’re letting past years dictate.”
The Camels, despite playing in the Big South rather than the SEC, still won just about as many games against the top 100 (9-11) as Texas A&M (10-22), and the Aggies landed a No. 2 seed. Campbell did what it could to schedule quality midweek opponents in its region like East Carolina, Duke, North Carolina State and Appalachian State, and when it had an extra game because of weather, it tried to schedule a game against North Carolina, N.C. State or South Carolina, but schedules did not work out.
“It wasn’t like we were running from people,” Goff said. “You go 49-10, have an RPI of 38 (per Warren Nolan), and you win your regular season hands down, and we get beat one game in a conference tournament on that team’s home field--something’s wrong with the picture. I’ll tell you, I’ve been doing college baseball for a long time. To have 35 guys in the room, and a lot of folks around, everybody projected us in. This is by far the worst day I’ve ever experienced in college baseball.”
• The other team we thought belonged in the field of 64 was Seton Hall, which finished second in the Big East (18-6), ranked 38th in the RPI and finished the season red-hot, going 37-10 since starting the season 0-9. Farrell said the committee placed less value on Seton Hall’s strong conference record because it did not have to play Louisville or Pittsburgh, and he cited the Pirates’ 2-10 record against teams in the field of 64 as a major reason for its exclusion. Of course, the Pirates had to start the season on the road because of their weather disadvantages, and they wound up going 18-13 in road games. By contrast, Texas A&M went 6-13 on the road. The Pirates also swept a series at Pepperdine--two weeks after the Waves won a series at Texas A&M. And while Seton Hall was just 1-6 against the top 50, it actually had as many top 100 wins as the Aggies, going 10-16 in those games.
“We had the fourth-most road wins in the country,” Seton Hall coach Rob Sheppard said. “If you look at our RPI and things like that, we played tough teams away. It’s just disappointing. I guess the first reaction that we had is we’re not really sure what kind of criteria they used. In years past, it seemed like it was more RPI-driven. In the Northeast, I know it’s tougher to schedule, especially midweek games, but we made it a point this year to be as aggressive as we could in our scheduling. And it didn’t work out. There were teams with higher RPIs that didn’t get in. Even Campbell--I don’t know how they didn’t get in.”
The highest team that was eligible for an at-large bid and didn’t get in also came from the Big East: No. 34 Notre Dame. But it’s easier to justify that omission, because the Irish went just 10-14 in the Big East and lost their final three series. Seton Hall finished better in the conference and better in the second half, and the Pirates deserved a spot.
• That brings us to the biggest surprise of the field: Texas A&M not only getting in, but getting in as a No. 2 seed. That suggests the Aggies weren’t even on the bubble, despite their 10-22 record against the top 100 and their 6-13 record on the road. The Aggies won just one series against a regional team (taking two of three from Ole Miss), and they lost a head-to-head series at home against Auburn. Both teams won 13 games in the SEC, and the Tigers finished with three straight series wins against regional teams (Ole Miss, at Florida, Arkansas). Factor in their series win against Texas A&M, and the Tigers won four series against regional teams, compared with A&M’s one.
But Auburn’s athletic director didn’t sit on the committee, as A&M’s did (Eric Hyman). That’s not supposed to matter, but it sure seems like it does. Otherwise it’s hard to build a case for the Aggies over Auburn, or Seton Hall. When Farrell discussed Seton Hall’s case, he said that SHU’s 10-16 record against the top 100 hurt it. BA’s John Manuel followed up with the natural question: So I guess A&M’s 10-22 record against the top 100 didn’t hurt it?
“I would say that’s probably correct,” Farrell responded. Later, he said the overriding factor in A&M’s favor was its nonconference strength of schedule (No. 22) and its overall strength of schedule (No. 8).
Sheppard’s criticism is valid: the committee presented a moving target this year, emphasizing the RPI in certain cases, strength of schedule in certain cases and conference finish in certain cases, but not applying the same standards evenly. Committee chairmen always say constructing the field is more an art than a science, and that is true. But Texas A&M as a No. 2 seed is mystifying.
• Farrell had a decent answer for a question about why Arkansas was bypassed as a host in favor of South Carolina.
“I think in Arkansas’ case, it really came down to the nonconference strength of schedule,” Farrell said. “They had a nonconference strength of schedule of 291 out of 296 teams, and they were just 1-6 in the nonconference away from home. I think that that’s probably what played against Arkansas the most.”
As we wrote yesterday, we still would have made Arkansas a host over South Carolina based on its higher finish in the SEC, its head-to-head sweep of the Gamecocks in Columbia and its better showing in the conference tournament. But nonconference performance is certainly a legitimate hole in Arkansas’ resume, and its omission as a host is justifiable.
• Oregon as a national seed, however, just doesn’t make sense. The Ducks played five series against NCAA tournament teams, and they lost all five. They played a very strong nonconference schedule, but still they are just 6-10 against the top 50. North Carolina State, on the other hand, is 18-10 against the top 50, and Indiana is 10-9 against the top 50. Those three teams, along with Florida State, were the finalists for the last two national seeds, Farrell said.
“I think that there were some committee members who were impressed with Oregon’s nonconference schedule and that they went on the road, particularly late in the season, and played at Ohio State,” Farrell said. “They had the nonconference series with Vanderbilt as well this year. So I think that the committee probably was impressed with their effort to step up their nonconference schedule.”
Apparently, going 1-2 against every regional team you play is good enough to get you a national seed, as long as you played a tough schedule. That shouldn’t be good enough; national seeds are supposed to be elite, not just very good. Oregon had a very good season, finishing second in the Pac-12 and ninth in the RPI. The Ducks deserved to host--but they did not prove they are good enough to win series against quality teams, so how can they be a national seed?
• Speaking of seeding, some of the committee’s work in that regard was just bizarre. How did Towson (No. 89 in the RPI) wind up as a No. 3 seed in Chapel Hill, while Central Arkansas (No. 62) wound up as a No. 4 in Starkville? That Starkville Regional also features another woefully under-seeded team in No. 3 Mercer (No. 28 in the RPI), which should have been a slam-dunk No. 2 seed after winning the Atlantic Sun regular-season title and going 43-16 overall. But the Bears were the last team in the field, according to Farrell, while Michigan State was the last team out. The Starkville Regional also features the No. 2 seed with the second-highest RPI in No. 18 South Alabama, which was a candidate to host a regional until the final week or so. That gets our vote as the toughest regional.
• A minor seeding qualm: We disagree with North Carolina getting the No. 1 overall seed rather than Vanderbilt. The Tar Heels finished as the No. 1 RPI team while the Commodores were No. 2, but Vanderbilt went a record 26-3 in the SEC and did not lose a series all year. North Carolina lost its last two series of the season. The Tar Heels still won the ACC’s regular-season and tournament crowns, but we like Vandy’s resume a bit more.
“When it came right down to it, it was really a close call on that one between North Carolina and Vandebilt,” Farrell said. “I’m not so sure I can really articulate what the determining factor was.”
• Farrell said that geography played a large role in determining where teams were sent for regionals, and in super regional pairings. So UCLA and Cal State Fullerton would face off in a potential super regional matchup yet again, and Clemson returns to Columbia for regionals for the second straight year.
“Unfortunately, it is something that we’re told to take under consideration and stick to as a result of directives from the NCAA Championships cabinet,” Farrell said, referring to instructions to limit travel as much as possible. “So we tried to spread it around as much as possible. We obviously looked at that South Carolina-Clemson situation. But as we looked historically back over the course of the last decade or more since the tournament expanded to 64 teams, we found that South Carolina and Clemson have only been paired up one time in a regional, and that was last year, unfortunately. But over that same amount of time, we’ve had other regional matchups occur much more often--Arizona State and Fullerton, for one thing, has happened a number of times, (and) UCLA and Cal State Fullerton being tied together.”
If the committee is forced to take geography into consideration, we have no problem with Clemson and South Carolina being grouped together, just like Miami and Florida often are, or the Texas schools with each other, or the Southern California schools. (Arizona State and Fullerton, by the way, are in the same regional for the third time during the 64-team era--the others were 2001 and 2004.) But we’d like to see geography de-emphasized and competitive balance weighted more heavily.
Farrell acknowledged that the committee discussed the possibility of seeding each of the top 16 teams last summer but decided against it.
“I think there was more of a concern about, if we went to strict national seeding, would that create more conference matchups in the super regional rounds?” Farrell said. “There was real concern about that happening.”
Of course, conference opponents could scarcely be more familiar with each other than UCLA and Fullerton, or Vanderbilt and Louisville (another super regional pairing).