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Selection Committee's Emphasis A Surprise And An Opportunity

Selection Monday is rarely shocking. Disappointing, perhaps. Aggravating, maybe. By the book, often. But surprising isn’t typically in the cards for the reveal of the NCAA Tournament bracket.

This year, Selection Monday brought some real surprises. In, Grand Canyon and Mississippi. Out, North Carolina State and Rutgers. Depending on your perspective, they led to infuriation or elation. The surprise was universal, however.

College baseball bracketology is an inexact science. But based on prior committee selections, NC State looked to be safely in the field after it advanced to the ACC Tournament championship game, clinching a winning conference record and a top-35 RPI. Sure, it was 14-15 in ACC play going into the tournament and was seeded 10th, but a winning conference record and that RPI are enough to put a team on the right side of the bubble. Rutgers, as the runner-up in both the Big Ten regular season and conference tournament, also figured to be safe. Meanwhile, Grand Canyon’s RPI (50) left it vulnerable and Ole Miss’ sub-.500 SEC record rendered it a coin-flip at best.

In building the final Baseball America Projected Field of 64 on Sunday night, I didn’t even stop to consider that NC State might be out. I figured an ACC team was closer to the bubble than most realized, but I didn’t think it would be the team that finished as the runner-up in the conference tournament. I put Rutgers in the last four in, but I figured its status as Big Ten runner-up would carry the day. I had a lingering feeling that Ole Miss would get in but lacked the gumption to predict it in print. And while I sympathized with Grand Canyon for getting upset in the Western Athletic Conference Tournament, I left it on the wrong side of the bubble fairly easily.

But the committee is different every year and it is made up of 10 people with their own ideas about how to select the 33 teams that receive at-large bids. This year, the committee broke precedent with its decisions. Committee chairman Mike Buddie, the athletic director at Army, explained how the committee landed on those decisions. NC State and Rutgers were held back by non-conference schedules that ranked in the bottom half of Division I. Ole Miss had more meaningful series wins than NC State and GCU was rewarded for its high-level wins and strong non-conference schedule (No. 10).

Rationally, it all makes sense. It’s a different way of looking at the NCAA Tournament than what baseball is used to and, unfortunately, it leaves two teams, coaching staffs and fan bases upset. But if this becomes the new normal for how the selection committee will pick at-large teams moving forward, this could be a big plus for the sport.

At the root, NC State and Rutgers were punished for their non-conference schedules. To a lesser degree, Notre Dame also was punished for its non-conference schedule when it was passed over to host regionals. Bubble teams like Dallas Baptist, GCU and Liberty were rewarded for aggressive scheduling, as were East Carolina and Georgia Southern on the host line.

If non-conference scheduling is going to become a key point the selection committee uses when evaluating teams, coaches will have to adjust their scheduling strategy. NC State played four non-conference series and all four were at home. One of the four (Northeastern) was a regional team last year. None were from major conferences and two of the teams combined to win just 30 games. The Wolfpack were challenged a little more in mid-week games, as they played East Carolina and UNC Wilmington twice, had Campbell scheduled twice (one game was rained out) and had Coastal Carolina on the schedule, but it also was rained out. Of its 26 scheduled non-conference games, just six were to be played on the road and none of those trips was outside North Carolina. Rutgers played on the road plenty, but it also played only two games against teams that made the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

On the flip side, Ole Miss had an above-average non-conference schedule rating of 90. It played a series at Central Florida and played two consistent mid-major contenders in Oral Roberts and Virginia Commonwealth, both of which are NCAA Tournament teams this season. In total, it played 10 non-conference games against teams that are in regionals, plus an extra game against Mississippi State. Grand Canyon’s non-conference schedule ranks 10th nationally and included 11 games against teams from the Big 12 and Pac-12. Dallas Baptist got in the field despite going 12-11-1 in the Missouri Valley Conference thanks to the fact its non-conference schedule was rated as the best in the country, and it went 6-3 against teams hosting regionals.

Non-conference scheduling isn’t easy, and the pandemic hasn’t made it any easier thanks to the uncertainty of travel, budget cuts and more. There’s a fine line to walk between challenging and overly taxing, particularly for teams that play in major conferences. But encouraging teams to play as challenging a slate as possible is needed. Major conference teams shouldn’t be able to skate by with mediocre conference records buttressed by beating up on bad non-conference competition.

The concern, however, is that this emphasis on non-conference strength of schedule will be a one-off. Seemingly every year, the committee chairman meets the media with a new reason for why the Field of 64 took the shape that it did. In 2016, it was an argument that teams needed to have winning conference records to be at-large teams. A year ago, overall strength of schedule seemed to carry extra weight. Some years it seems that the committee has followed RPI as closely as possible.

Here's hoping this is different, however. Getting teams to play better schedules would be a boon for the game and college baseball fans across the country. More marquee non-conference matchups could boost attendance and interest early in the season, helping college baseball build momentum ahead of conference play.

Creating more exciting non-conference games wasn't the selection committee's objective when it made its choices this weekend. But it could be its legacy.

Lebarron Johnson (Brian Westerholt Four Seam Images)

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