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NCAA Baseball Tournament Bracket Analysis: An Imperfect Field For An Imperfect Season

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The NCAA Tournament selection committee was this year tasked with an impossible job: pick a Field of 64 in an unprecedented year as college baseball played through a pandemic.

Scheduling more disparate than it had been since at least 2008 when the universal start date was implemented. There were conferences using normal scheduling formats and others playing only conference games and still others doing everything in between. There was less inter-regional competition than normal. There were pauses due to Covid-19 protocols leading to canceled games and teams scrambling to replace them at the last minute.

All of those changes challenged the selection committee’s baseline metric – RPI – upon which much of the rest of the selection criteria – strength of schedule, top-50 and top-100 wins – is based. Jeff Altier, the committee chairman and Stetson athletic director, said the committee evaluated the use of RPI throughout the selection process and leaned heavily on the regional advisory committees, which are made up of coaches in each region of the country and designed to give the selection committee an on-the-ground sense of how teams stack up. An eye test, if you will.

“We know (RPI is) not 100 percent accurate, especially not in Covid times,” Altier said. “The selection became more subjective, and we had to rely more heavily on the regional advisory committees in terms of getting right teams in the field and seeding it properly.”

Whatever way they got there, the committee selections aligned to the RPI. The top eight seeds went to teams that ranked in the top 10 of RPI. A similar theme played out in at-large selections. Every team in the top 40 of RPI made the tournament and the first four teams out ranked in the top 50.

The only deviations from RPI were the committee’s decisions to include UC Santa Barbara (51), Maryland (59) and Michigan (90). All three finished in the top three of their conferences – the Big West and Big Ten, conferences that are generally given respect by the selection committee. The Big Ten’s respect especially is not a surprise given the overall trends of college sports, where an increasing number of at-large selections are given to the Power Five conferences.

The Big Ten was destined to be a flash point for the committee once the conference made the decision to not allow non-conference games – a decision that wasn’t just for baseball, but for all sports other than basketball, which was directed by the NCAA to try to play non-conference games. RPI can’t properly evaluate teams without non-conference data, putting a greater emphasis on the RACs.

“With the Big Ten not playing outside of its conference, the way we addressed it was the regional advisory committee to give eyes on the teams and assessment on how played,” Altier said.

But just within the region, a comparison between Michigan and Ball State, one of the first four teams out of the field, is impossible to parse. The Wolverines went 27-17, finished third in the Big Ten but went 2-4 over the final two weekends, losing series to Nebraska and Maryland, the two teams that finished ahead of them in the conference standings. They are undeniably talented – they were a preseason Top 25 team – but their on-field play has been up-and-down all season.

Ball State went 38-18 overall and 29-11, finishing two games behind Central Michigan in the Mid-American Conference standings. The Cardinals played a challenging non-conference schedule – the 14th hardest in the nation – and split a four-game series at Arizona and won a series at Kentucky. They ranked No. 48 in RPI and won 20 games away from home. It would have been hard for them to do anything more, but their RPI was dragged down by the conference they play in.

The comparisons don’t get any easier elsewhere. Fairfield was one of the most confounding teams in the nation all season. The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, like the Big Ten, did not play non-conference games. Fairfield dominated the conference, going 33-1 in the regular season but lost in the tournament championship game. Because it dominated a closed league, RPI loved it and Fairfield ranks third in the metric. But the MAAC is usually a bottom-five league in the country and Fairfield played no outside competition. How good is it really?

It’s an unknowable answer, but that uncertainty seems to have granted it an NCAA Tournament bid. Jackson State went 24-0 in the regular season in Southwest Athletic Conference play and, like Fairfield, lost in its conference tournament championship game. But the SWAC did allow non-conference games and Jackson State went 2-8 in those games – even if two of them were against Mississippi and Mississippi State – and its RPI was No. 122. Because of that – and the other SWAC school’s performance in non-conference games – Altier said the RAC was comfortable saying the SWAC was a one-bid league.

There’s plenty to argue with throughout the Field of 64 but this year was never going to be cut and dried, not in such unusual circumstances with such disparate schedules. In the end, the committee took the stance that it had to evaluate what happened on the field and not what might have happened in a more perfect world.

An imperfect bracket in an imperfect year is to be expected. After a year without the College World Series, it’ll have to do.

Brock Jones Courtesystanford

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