Thursday Roundup: Hokies, Hogs Continue To Surge

The races for the last national seeds and regional hosts are heating up. Let’s start the Thursday Roundup with a look at those two races, then examine how the day’s action impacted at-large bubble teams.

National Seeds

• Florida State looked like a strong bet to earn a national seed coming into the week, thanks to its ACC Atlantic Division title and its back-to-back series wins against North Carolina State and Clemson in the final two weeks. But the Seminoles have gone 0-3 so far this week, losing a nonconference tilt at North Carolina on Monday and then dropping their first two games at the ACC tournament. Florida State scored twice in the top of the ninth to tie Thursday’s game against Virginia Tech, but the Hokies answered in the bottom of the frame, as Mark Zagunis hit a walk-off solo home run to lift Virginia Tech to a 3-2 win. Meanwhile, North Carolina State won its ACC tournament opener Wednesday against Clemson and was idle Thursday. The Seminoles edged the Wolfpack by just a half-game in the regular-season standings, and N.C. State has a better record against the top 50 (17-9) than FSU (14-14). One of those two teams figures to land a national seed, but it now appears that N.C. State could beat out Florida State if it wins another game or two in Durham, especially if Florida State loses its third tournament game to Virginia. Stay tuned.

• Louisville entered the Big East tournament in good position to earn a national seed after winning its final 16 regular-season games to take the conference’s regular-season title. But the Cardinals likely squandered their opportunity to earn a national seed with an 0-2 showing in the conference tournament, capped by Thursday’s 9-1 loss to Rutgers. We’re now leaning toward Indiana as the favorite to snatch that eighth national seed, assuming the Hoosiers have a strong showing in the Big Ten tournament. The Hoosiers got off to a good start with a 4-2 win against Minnesota on Thursday, and afterward IU coach Tracy Smith acknowledged that his team knew Louisville’s loss opened the door for the Hoosiers.

“I’d be lying to you if I said they didn’t know that,” Smith said. “That was one of the things we actually talked about. I was really worried coming into this tournament, how ready are our guys going to be to play? We feel like we’ve got an NCAA bid locked up. It’s a unique position because normally you come into this, your backs are against the wall, and it’s win or go home. I was worried about us being relaxed. So one of the things we talked about was, ‘What’s a way to get these guys to play? Let’s keep an eye on Louisville.’ I don’t want to say that’s some false motivation technique—I think it’s real. We beat Louisville 2 out of 3, and I think if we take care of business here, I would think we’d be a legitimate shot at a national seed. And the guys know that.”

Indiana ranks 14th in the RPI—no small feat for a Big Ten team—and owns a 9-8 record against the top 50 and a 13-10 record against the top 100. The Hoosiers have more top 50 wins than Oregon (6-10) and UCLA (5-8), and considerably fewer series losses (one) than Mississippi State (six). Obviously, the Bulldogs played a stronger conference schedule and have far more wins against the top 50 (21-14). But MSU’s six series losses are a black mark against it, as is its 8-9 record in road games (compared with Indiana’s 15-9 mark on the road). Bearing in mind that the landscape could still change over the next three days, we’d rank the contenders for that last national seed in this order: Indiana, Mississippi State, UCLA, Oregon, Louisville.

Regional Hosts

• As we see it, five teams are competing for the last two spots as regional hosts: Clemson, South Carolina, Arkansas and South Alabama, with Virginia Tech emerging as a darkhorse contender after beating Virginia and Florida State in the first two days of the ACC tournament. Virginia Tech’s 15-14 record in the ACC (and sixth-place finish) might hold it back, but the Hokies are No. 11 in the RPI (one spot ahead of Clemson and two ahead of South Carolina), and they own a 6-2 record against UVa. and Florida State. Their top 50 record (12-14) is slightly better than South Carolina’s (11-14), and their top 100 record (22-15) is better than South Carolina’s (17-15) or Clemson’s (20-16). If Virginia Tech beats Georgia Tech on Friday, its strong finish will be tough to ignore, especially in light of South Carolina’s 0-2 showing in the SEC tournament. And if the Hokies go on to win the ACC tournament, their hosting case will be very strong. We don’t expect the ACC to get six hosts, so Virginia Tech is likely competing with Clemson (which is 0-1 so far at the ACC tournament) for one host spot.

As mentioned above, South Carolina went 0-2 in Hoover, losing 4-3 in 10 innings to Vanderbilt on Thursday. Arkansas, meanwhile, toppled Louisiana State 4-1, as Ryne Stanek (8 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 4 K) threw a gem, and the Hogs got to the LSU bullpen after Aaron Nola (7 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 8 K) departed. That win vaulted Arkansas from No. 44 to No. 34 in the RPI. We’ve been writing that the Hogs needed to boost their RPI close to the top 30 to have a shot at hosting, and now they’re in hosting range (as we wrote yesterday, UCLA hosted with a No. 34 RPI in 2011, beating out No. 14 Arkansas). The Razorbacks’ third-place finish in the SEC, their sweep of South Carolina in Columbia, and their better showing in the conference tournament is enough for us to move them ahead of the Gamecocks in the pecking order. Arkansas has advanced to the SEC tournament semifinals, and they can continue to strengthen their case with another win or two this weekend.

South Alabama is just 5-9 against the top 50 and 12-13 against the top 100, and the Jaguars are probably at the back of this pack.

In summation, our updated forecast has Arkansas grabbing one of the final two hosting spots, with the final one still up for grabs (between Clemson, Virginia Tech and South Carolina). Clemson can probably secure itself as a host with wins against North Carolina and Miami over the next two days, but if Virginia Tech wins another game while Clemson finishes 1-2 or 0-3 in Durham, we’ll give the Hokies the nod. If Virginia Tech loses to Georgia Tech, while Clemson loses one or both of its remaining two games in pool play, South Carolina could still beat out both of them.

Simple, right? OK, not so simple. Friday should bring more clarity.

Bubble Watch

• Illinois effectively wrapped up an at-large spot with a 3-2 win against Michigan on Thursday. We liked the Illini’s chances regardless, but avoiding an 0-2 showing in the Big Ten tournament clinched it. Illinois ranks No. 30 in the RPI; it is safe.

• Oklahoma boosted its chances with a 2-0 win against Baylor behind a brilliant outing from Jonathan Gray (9 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 12 K). At No. 48 in the RPI, the Sooners still have work to do in the Big 12 tournament to improve their position, but right now we’ve got them on the right side of the bubble.

• Seton Hall staved off elimination from the Big East tournament with a 7-2 win against St. John’s. Like Illinois, we figured Seton Hall would be safe if it could avoid an 0-2 showing, and now the Pirates (No. 40 in the RPI) should be secure.

• Notre Dame improved to 2-0 at the Big East tournament with a 5-3 win against Pittsburgh behind Pat Connaughton (6 IP, 9 H, 3 R, 0 ER). Both teams needed that win badly; Pitt ranks 67th in the RPI and will need to climb a dozen or more spots in the RPI to have a shot at an at-large bid. Notre Dame’s problem isn’t its RPI (No. 35), but its poor showing in the Big East’s regular season (10-14), capped by back-to-back series losses to St. John’s and Cincinnati (which are a combined 21 games under .500 overall). But its RPI and its 8-7 record against the top 50 help Notre Dame’s case, and if it can win another game or two in the Big East tournament, it has a solid chance to grab an at-large spot. Of course, the Irish might now be the favorite to win the automatic bid.

• Rice improved to 2-0 at the Conference USA with a 5-1 win against Central Florida. At No. 43 in the RPI, and with a C-USA regular-season title in its pocket plus a sterling 17-6 record on the road, Rice looks like a strong bet to earn an at-large bid if it fails to with the automatic bid.

• Houston won its C-USA tournament opener Thursday, 9-4 against East Carolina. The Cougars rank 53rd in the RPI and are 17-9 against the top 100, giving them a decent shot to earn an at-large spot. They must win at least one more game in pool play to have a shot, and a trip to the tournament title game would be a nice boost to their borderline resume, but their fortunes are improving.

• New Mexico won its Mountain West Conference tournament opener, 7-3 against Nevada. At No. 49 in the RPI and after winning the MWC regular-season title by seven games, we like the Lobos’ chances to get an at-large bid if they fail to win the conference tournament, so other bubble teams need to hope New Mexico can keep winning and take the automatic bid to keep the MWC a one-bid league.

• The two favorites in the Ohio Valley Conference, Austin Peay State and Tennessee Tech, both won their tournament openers Thursday. The Governors have the RPI (No. 28) to earn an at-large bid, while the Golden Eagles (No. 80) do not, so bubble teams need to root for APSU to win the OVC tournament.

• Texas A&M fell to 2-1 in the SEC tournament with a 6-4 loss to Mississippi State. The Aggies are squarely on the bubble and probably need at least another win in Hoover to overcome their 10-21 record against the top 50 and their 6-13 record on the road.

• Alabama is no longer on the bubble; we already thought the Tide was safe, but Thursday’s 7-5 win against Mississippi removed all doubt. ‘Bama is in.

• Bad news for bubble teams: Western Carolina dropped a 12-11 slugfest to The Citadel. Thanks to their Southern Conference regular-season title, the Catamounts stand a good chance to snag an at-large bid if they get knocked out of the double-elimination SoCon tournament with another loss. But at No. 52 in the RPI, they are certainly not a lock. WCU could use another win or two to firm up its case.

• More bad news for bubble teams: Sam Houston State fell to 1-1 in the Southland Conference tournament with a 5-3 loss to Southeastern Louisiana. We are convinced the Bearkats (No. 44 in the RPI) will earn an at-large bid if they fail to win the conference tournament, thanks to their regular-season title and strong performance against name-brand in-state foes in midweek action. But they are the only Southland team with an at-large chance, so other bubble teams need to hope they can rally through the losers’ bracket to keep the SLC a one-bid league.

• The West Coast Conference tournament should be fascinating to watch this week. Fourth-seeded San Francisco knocked off top-seeded Gonzaga 8-5 on Thursday, while San Diego won a wild back-and-forth affair against Brigham Young, 9-8. The Dons, Toreros and Cougars all have at-large chances thanks to RPIs in the 50s, while Gonzaga’s only path to the postseason is through the automatic bid thanks to an RPI ranking of No. 100. If Gonzaga cannot make a run through the loser’s bracket, could each of the other three teams make it to regionals? We like San Diego’s case the best, but we expect this to be at least a two-bid league, with a chance for a third, depending on where these teams wind up in the RPI after this weekend.