Baseball America this spring surveyed 90 head coaches on a wide-ranging list of topics to get the pulse of the profession. Throughout the spring, we’re posting the results of that survey.
The NCAA Tournament is college baseball’s showcase: 64 teams competing over the course of a month for the national championship. The College World Series is the game’s biggest stage, an annual spectacle in Omaha.
They’re traditions that everyone around the game holds dear. But the NCAA Tournament isn’t a static concept. It’s evolved over time, expanding, tweaking the format and adding wrinkles to improve the event. Just within the last few years, the tournament has been tweaked to seed all 16 hosts after nearly 20 years of only seeding the top eight and instant replay was expanded to regionals.
So, change and improvement are possible. Earlier in this series, we asked coaches if they preferred the current structure of regionals or a 32-host, best-of-three model for the first round. Our panel was in support of a 32-host model, by a 58-42 margin.
There are many other concepts for improving the NCAA Tournament, however. So, today, we asked our panel: What is your No. 1 complaint about the NCAA Tournament?
|Better mid-major representation
|Seed the whole field
Previous Coaching Confidential questions
- Who is the most underrated head coach?
- Which assistant coach will make the best head coach?
- What should the next proposal for a third full-time assistant coach entail?
- What program has the best player development facilities?
- What’s the most important quality for an assistant coach?
- What’s your favorite restaurant to eat at on the road?
- Would you prefer the NCAA Tournament use a 32-host format?
The most common response was “None,” however, it only accounted for about a fifth of all responses. While the lack of complaints about college baseball’s showcase is good, the vast majority of coaches have at least a tweak or two they would like to make.
Among the complaints, the most common response was a desire to see more mid-major teams represented in the Field of 64. Baseball, like men’s basketball and other sports, has in recent years seen an increase in the number of at-large bids taken by teams in major conferences.
There are 33 at-large bids awarded annually (the other 31 teams in the tournament earn their conference’s automatic bid). In the last five years, the Power Five conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC) accounted for an average of 24.6 at-large bids. Ten years prior, from 2005-09, those five conferences accounted for an average of 21.4 at-large bids.
Part of the reason for the consolidation of power in the Power Five is realignment. In 2009, those conferences had a total of 54 baseball-playing schools. Today, they have 61. And while realignment was not done with baseball in mind, it did help concentrate the best baseball programs in a few conferences, which have used their increased revenues to invest in the sport more heavily, leading to more postseason bids. (While the Power Five mostly refers to football and both the American and Big West are effectively major conferences in baseball, neither have produced at-large bids as consistently as the Power Five conferences and were thus not included in this analysis.)
The consolidation of at-large bids to major conferences, however, has frustrated mid-major coaches. Some expressed frustration that the selection committee will award an at-large bid to a team that finishes in 10th place in its conference (as has happened in the ACC and SEC), rather than awarding a second bid to a smaller conference.
“We all know they are the best leagues, but a lot of mid-major two-seeds are able to compete on that level,” one coach said. “Reward a second-place team, not a tenth-place team.”
Several coaches also expressed a desire to see the whole field seeded, from 1-64. That would create a tournament structure more like basketball, where the No. 1 overall seed is rewarded by playing the worst team in the field, with only small changes in seeding to split up teams from the same conference. In the current baseball format, however, geography and travel cost play a more significant role in creating the bracket.
While the change might not make a significant difference in matchups between No. 1 and No. 4 seeds, it would also allow the best hosts to avoid the best No. 2 seeds, and give the best No. 2 seeds a better chance at producing an upset.
“You’d have the opportunity to reward the team that has positioned itself throughout (the) entirety of the season,” one coach said. “That gives them the best opportunity and highest percentage to advance to Omaha. That team earned that right because of their body of work.”
A common gripe around baseball is that RPI needs to be fixed, and that again was a point raised in the poll. Many contend that RPI is too much a reflection of what teams you can play in midweek games, which is effectively limited by geography. That has led to complaints about the metric, especially from those on the West Coast, which has fewer Division I schools than many areas of the Southeast.
RPI hasn’t been reworked since 2013, when it was changed to give more weight to road games. Since that time, basketball completely threw out RPI and the NCAA introduced a new metric to replace it. Some in baseball would like to see a similar change, or at least see RPI de-emphasized in the selection process.
In 2019, six programs that won 40 games finished outside the top 60 in RPI, a fact that seemed off to one coach.
“These programs aren’t even brought up in conversations for at-large bids,” he said. “Forty-win teams should virtually always be at least in the discussion and a modified RPI and/or selection process could ensure this while still valuing schedule strength.”
Tournament expansion also received some support. The NCAA Tournament has remained its current size of 64 teams since 1999, when it was expanded from 48 teams. After 20 years of the format, some coaches are ready to see a larger field.
Exactly what that expansion would look like is open for debate. Men’s basketball expanded its field from 65 teams to 68 in 2011 with the creation of the “First Four” opening round games. Perhaps a similar concept could work in baseball, though the pitching for those teams would be severely disadvantaged going into regionals and the added cost might not outweigh the added revenue.
Another concept would be to expand the field by 16 teams, creating five-team regionals. The format would have to be tweaked to accommodate an odd number of teams in each regional, but it would neatly fit in the tournament’s current overall format.
Interestingly, there was as much support for return to truer regionals like the sport had in previous decades where geography was a leading factor in the formation of the tournament bracket, as there was for making regionals less geographically dependent.
While a plurality of coaches might be content with the NCAA Tournament as is, there was no shortage of ideas for how to improve it. Many other ideas were floated, from adding a day to regionals to getting a higher level of officiating to making the College World Series more of an event within the industry, as the Final Four is in basketball.
But no coach had as earnest of an answer as one first-year head coach who will have to wait at least another year for a chance to lead his team to regionals.
“That I’ve never been to it,” he said.