Wednesday Roundup: Bubble Watch

Wednesday was a mixed bag for NCAA tournament bubble teams. Before we get to which bubble teams won and lost, let’s take a look at how mid-major favorites fared, keeping in mind that if those teams don’t win their conference tournaments, they could get in as at-large teams, reducing the number of available bids for other bubble teams.

In this week’s Stock Report, we identified the following six teams as at-large candidates if they fail to win automatic bids in leagues that would otherwise send just one team to regionals: Creighton, New Mexico, Bryant, Austin Peay State, Western Carolina and Sam Houston State. Of those, UNM, Bryant and Austin Peay State were idle Wednesday. Here’s how the other three fared:

Creighton: The Bluejays went 0-2 at the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, getting eliminated Wednesday by Wichita State, 11-4. Creighton’s at-large chances are shot after its poor showing this week; the Bluejays needed a strong performance after finishing third in the MVC in the regular season, and they have dropped from the 40s to No. 65 in the updated Warren Nolan Ratings Percentage Index rankings. Take Creighton off the board; the MVC will be a one-bid league, which is good news for other bubble teams.

Western Carolina: The high-flying Catamounts slugged their way to a 13-7 win against Samford. WCU is off to a 1-0 start in the SoCon tournament, which is good news for other bubble teams.

Sam Houston State: The top-seeded Bearkats also got off to a 1-0 start at the Southland Conference tournament, beating McNeese State, 8-3. And SHSU did it while saving co-aces Cody Dickson and Caleb Smith. They’re in good shape—more good news for bubble teams.

Here’s a look at how likely or definite at-large teams fared in potential multi-bid leagues:

Mercer: The Bears overcame a 5-1 deficit to beat South Carolina-Upstate 12-6, getting them off to a 1-0 start in the Atlantic Sun tournament.

Louisville: The top-seeded Cardinals lost to eight-seeded Connecticut, 3-2 in 12 innings. Billy Ferriter had four hits, including the game-winning RBI single in the 12th, and Carson Cross allowed just two runs over nine strong innings of work for the Huskies, who became the first No. 8 seed to knock off the top seed in the Big East opening round since Villanova beat St. John’s in 2008. The Cardinals are vying for a national seed, and they’ll need a strong run through the loser’s bracket to beat out teams like Indiana, UCLA, Oregon or maybe Mississippi State for the eighth national seed.

Seton Hall: The Pirates were blanked by Notre Dame, 5-0. Adam Norton threw a seven-hit shutout for the Irish, who need a strong run in the conference tournament to offset their poor finish to the regular season. Notre Dame (No. 41) now ranks ahead of Seton Hall (No. 43) in the RPI, but we still like SHU’s chances better thanks to their better Big East performance in the regular season. The Pirates probably need to avoid an 0-2 showing to feel comfortable on Selection Monday, but they could get in even if they lose to St. John’s on Thursday. If neither Louisville nor Seton Hall can run through the loser’s bracket to win the Big East’s automatic bid, this likely becomes at least a three-bid league, with a chance for four.

Illinois: The Fighting Illini lost to Minnesota, 3-2, on Andy Henkemeyer’s walk-off RBI single in the ninth. At No. 32 in the RPI, Illinois remains in great shape to snag an at-large bid, and probably would be safe even with an 0-2 showing this week.

Rice: The Owls got off to a 1-0 start in pool play at the Conference USA tournament with a 3-1 win against Alabama-Birmingham. At No. 46 in the RPI and with a C-USA regular-season title in its pocket, we like Rice’s chances to earn an at-large bid if it fails to win the automatic bid, though the Owls are not a lock. If Rice does win the tournament. Conference USA’s other bubble team, Houston, was idle Wednesday (and the Cougars have more work to do this week than the Owls do).

Alabama: The Crimson Tide was blanked by LSU, 3-0, as Cody Glenn and two relievers combined on a six-hit shutout. ‘Bama is still alive in the double-elimination round, and it could cement its at-large credentials with a win against Mississippi in Thursday’s elimination game. Even if it loses, we expect the Tide to earn an at-large bid thanks to its No. 27 ranking in the RPI, its 14 SEC wins in the regular season and its head-to-head victory against Auburn on Tuesday.

South Alabama, Troy, Louisiana Lafayette, Florida Atlantic: The top four seeds in the Sun Belt tournament are all strong bets for regional bids, and all four of them won Wednesday, increasing the likelihood that one of them will win the automatic bid while the other three get at-large spots. In the day’s final game, the Ragin’ Cajuns overcame a 6-5 ninth-inning deficit against Florida International, winning on Jace Conrad’s walk-off three-run homer.

Coastal Carolina, Campbell: The Big South’s top two seeds both won Wednesday, as Campbell beat Radford 4-3, while Coastal Carolina topped Gardner-Webb 3-2. The Big South is a strong bet to send two teams to regionals if one of those two teams wins the automatic bid (making the other an at-large team). If another team wins the Big South tournament, the Camels and Chanticleers would both have solid at-large cases, giving the league a chance to send three teams to regionals. But that wouldn’t be a lock.

And here’s a look at how borderline or fringe bubble teams (who would not be locks for at-large bids if they fail to win their conference tournaments) fared Wednesday:

Texas A&M: The Aggies gave their at-large hopes a serious jolt Wednesday, knocking off top-ranked Vanderbilt 5-0. Texas A&M hit three home runs at the spacious Hoover Met, and Parker Ray held Vandy to just three hits over eight scoreless innings. A&M has climbed all the way up to No. 30 in the RPI after beginning SEC tournament play with wins against Florida and Vandy, and the more games they win, the worse it is for the Gators, who are just 29-28 and finished with a sputter. The Aggies could use another win or two to firm up their at-large case, as they are still just 10-20 against the top 100 and 6-13 on the road, but they did win 13 SEC games in the regular season, and they have positive momentum. If they don’t win another game in Hoover, they’ll have a shot to get in, but it will depend how many at-large bids are available, and how other bubble teams do. Right now, the Aggies look to be in better position than Florida and possibly Auburn as well, although the Tigers did win the head-to-head series in College Station and did finish strong with three straight quality series wins. Perhaps both teams wind up getting in (along with Alabama), while Florida gets left out, making the SEC a nine-bid league. If we had to bet, we’d bet on that outcome.

Florida Gulf Coast: A-Sun bubble dweller FGCU lost to Kennesaw State, 3-1. The Eagles dropped to No. 67 in the RPI, and their at-large hopes look to be in jeopardy.

Pittsburgh: The Pirates drubbed St. John’s, 10-2, to get off to a 1-0 start at the Big East tournament. Pittsburgh is No. 62 in the RPI and needs to keep on winning to get its RPI into at-large range.

South Florida: The Bulls beat Rutgers, 5-2, to win their Big East tournament opener. With a No. 65 ranking in the RPI heading into the game and a 2-10 record against the top 50, USF has plenty of work still to do in order to have a shot at an at-large bid.

Here’s a look at how regional hosting candidates fared Wednesday:

Mississippi State, South Carolina: We already thought the Bulldogs were a very strong bet to host, but they cemented their case with a 5-3 win against the Gamecocks. Wes Rea and Demarcus Henderson combined for five hits and five RBIs, and Myles Gentry delivered 5.2 innings of scoreless, three-hit relief to help the Bulldogs improve to 3-1 against South Carolina over the last week. If Mississippi State goes on to win the SEC tournament, while Louisville, Indiana, UCLA and Oregon stumble, the Bulldogs could have a chance to steal a national seed, but we still think it’s a long shot because MSU lost too many series in the regular season. The Gamecocks are still in hosting position, but an 0-2 showing could make them sweat, if Arkansas continues to win. Speaking of the Hogs . . .

Arkansas: Barrett Astin allowed just one run over eight strong innings, and Arkansas scored on a wild pitch in the 10th to beat Mississippi, 2-1. The Hogs improved five spots to No. 44 in the RPI, and if they can boost their RPI to around No. 30 with a strong run in Hoover, they could conceivably host at South Carolina’s expense, especially if the Gamecocks go 0-2. Arkansas did finish third in the SEC in the regular season, which carries plenty of weight, and it also swept its head-to-head series at South Carolina. That could be enough to overcome South Carolina’s RPI advantage—if Arkansas can continue to boost its RPI. Teams outside the top 40 have no chance to host, regardless of any other factors, but remember that UCLA hosted (as a No. 1 seed) with a No. 34 RPI in 2011, on the strength of its Pac-10 regular-season championship. The Bruins hosted that year at the expense of Arkansas, which ranked No. 14 in the RPI. So if Arkansas can approach that top 30 this year, it could do the same thing to the Gamecocks (or Clemson—see below). Thursday’s game against LSU, with Ryne Stanek on the mound for the Hogs against Aaron Nola, is huge.

Clemson: The Tigers’ resume is similar to South Carolina’s, and the Gamecocks did take the head-to-head series against Clemson back in Week Three. So if the Tigers flop in the ACC tournament, while Arkansas surges, the Hogs and Gamecocks could both host, leaving Clemson out in the cold. That would give the SEC five hosts and the ACC four. Clemson dropped its pool play opener Wednesday against North Carolina State, 6-3. N.C. State got a solid start out of up-and-down Brad Stone (5 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 1 ER), while Clemson lost with ace Daniel Gossett (6.1 IP, 6 H, 6 R, 5 ER, 2 BB, 6 K) on the mound.

• Don’t forget about South Alabama (No. 17 in the RPI) as a darkhorse hosting candidate. As mentioned above, the Jaguars got off to a strong start in the Sun Belt tourney, beating Arkansas-Little Rock, 10-2. But we still think USA is unlikely to host at the expense of a fourth SEC team (South Carolina or Arkansas), assuming Clemson rebounds this week and solidifies its hosting position.