NCAA Tournament Bubble Watch (5/18/23)
With just one week left in the regular season for most conferences, bubble watch is starting to become more urgent for teams around college baseball.
Until Selection Monday, we’ll be tracking the development of the Field of 64 and, most importantly, what every team needs to do to secure an at-large bid.
For these purposes, we’ll sort teams that are in at-large contention into three camps:
1) Locks. Reserved for teams that could lose out and still make the NCAA Tournament. That’s a bit nit-picky, but when we say lock, we mean it.
2) Should be in. Generally, a team that would be solidly in if the field was selected today.
3) Work to do. Nothing is guaranteed for these teams.
Clemson, Miami and Virginia this week join Wake Forest among the ACC’s locks. All four of those teams also project to host.
Teams in the ACC generally must get to 15 conference wins to get to the NCAA Tournament. No ACC team has gotten an at-large bid without being at least .500 in conference play since 2016.
The bubbliest series this weekend in the ACC is Notre Dame’s trip to Boston College. BC is looking to clinch a bid and remain in line to host. The Fighting Irish, meanwhile, need to win at least once to get to that 15-win mark in conference play.
Lock: Clemson, Miami, Virginia, Wake Forest
Should be in: Boston College, Duke, North Carolina
Work to do: North Carolina State, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech
Boston College (32-16, 14-13; RPI: 13; SOS: 31): BC had last weekend off from conference play and, as a result, stands in much the same position it was a week ago. The Eagles should be all set as long as they avoid a sweep at home against Notre Dame—and maybe even if they did get swept. If they want to host, however, a series win is probably a must.
Duke (34-17, 15-11; RPI: 17; SOS: 7): Duke has gone just 3-4 coming out of its finals break, a real step back from its red-hot form in April. That skid included a home series loss last weekend against Georgia Tech and is keeping me from locking up the Blue Devils. They’re all set as long as they don’t finish the season 0-5 (and maybe even if they did). They’re focused on the hosting race, but I’ll let this ride for another week before locking them in.
North Carolina (33-18, 14-11; RPI: 25; SOS: 14): The Tar Heels look like they’re heating up going down the stretch. They last weekend swept NC State and have won eight of their last 11 games. Their 14 conference wins are probably enough because they had two games rained out at Pittsburgh, meaning they’re already guaranteed to finish at least .500 in the regular season. Like Duke, UNC should be all set as long as it doesn’t finish the season 0-5 (and maybe even if it does).
North Carolina State (31-18, 10-16; RPI: 26; SOS: 20): No one in the ACC knows better about how tight the bubble can get than NC State, which last year was snubbed at 14-15 in conference play despite an RPI of 33 and a run to the ACC Tournament championship game. So, the Wolfpack know that getting swept at UNC last weekend was a massive blow. The only thing really keeping NC State in the picture is its top-30 RPI. If it can sweep Pittsburgh this weekend and then advance to the ACC Tournament semifinal, it still has bubble hopes. But there’s no margin for error now.
Notre Dame (29-20, 14-13; RPI: 52; SOS: 68): The Fighting Irish are closer to the bubble than is comfortable. Notre Dame finishes with a series at BC and even just winning once would secure a .500 conference record, but it’s got an RPI on the wrong side of 50 and a non-conference strength of schedule of 286. That said, there aren’t many instances of a team going exactly .500 in ACC play over the last 10 seasons, but just two of the 13 that reached that benchmark missed the NCAA Tournament. One was 2014 Wake, which had an RPI of 79, and the other was 2021 Louisville, which had an RPI of 75 and comes with the pandemic year asterisk. So, while it’s rarely this simple, a series win at BC would eliminate all doubt for Notre Dame. A single win this weekend would probably be enough for the Irish. A sweep probably would be fatal to their at-large hopes.
Virginia Tech (29-19, 11-15; RPI: 53; SOS: 48): A sweep last weekend at home by Clemson has left Virginia Tech in a bad spot, as it must now go to top-ranked Wake and win a series, something no team has done this season. Even then, the Hokies cannot finish the season with a winning ACC record and would still only have an RPI of about 40. Despite the fact Virginia Tech is ahead of NC State in the ACC standings, it’s in a worse place with regard to the bubble.
Annually, the Big 12 provides an exciting conference race and this year is no different. It’s been a hard one to get a handle on, as it appears that nearly any team in the conference can win any given series.
This week Oklahoma State joins West Virginia as a lock. Texas is in good shape. Almost half of the rest of the conference goes into the final weekend looking to bolster its resume in one way or another. That’ll make for another exciting week of Big 12 baseball.
Lock: Oklahoma State, West Virginia
Should be in: Texas
Work to do: Kansas State, Oklahoma, TCU, Texas Tech
Kansas State (32-20, 12-9; RPI: 51; SOS: 57): K-State last weekend lost a series at Oklahoma State, dropping it to third in the standings. A series win this weekend against TCU should be enough to push the Wildcats over the goal line, despite the fact their RPI would still be around 50. A series loss would send K-State to the Big 12 Tournament with some work to do.
Oklahoma (29-22, 10-11; RPI: 35; SOS: 19): Oklahoma has played itself into the tournament conversation and it has strong metrics in its favor. Those numbers only will help it so much, however, if it loses its rivalry showdown at home against Oklahoma State. A losing conference record isn’t a knockout blow in the Big 12, but the Sooners can’t afford both a series loss this weekend and a poor showing at the conference tournament.
Texas (35-18, 12-9; RPI: 30; SOS: 26): It would probably be fine to lock up the Longhorns. But if they got swept this weekend at home by West Virginia, falling to .500 in conference play, they might go to the Big 12 Tournament with a bit of work to do. So, I’ll hold off, but the Longhorns don’t need to be sweating the bubble.
TCU (31-21, 11-10; RPI: 47; SOS: 29): The Horned Frogs are very bubbly. There’s some great—they beat Arkansas and Vanderbilt and won a series against Oklahoma State—and some bad—home series losses to Florida State and UNC Wilmington. Their RPI is right in that bubbly range and the emphasis probably belongs on the Big 12 standings. TCU got a needed sweep last weekend against Baylor but now must travel to Kansas State. One win this weekend would secure a .500 conference record and would give the Frogs a solid chance.
Texas Tech (35-18, 10-11; RPI: 41; SOS: 43): The Red Raiders last weekend lost a series at West Virginia and fell below .500 in conference play. They, however, won a game in Morgantown, which gave them a needed metrics boost. Tech returns home this weekend and faces a must-win series against Kansas. A series win would leave them in good shape and a sweep would probably remove all doubt.
Indiana and Maryland are tied for first place in the standings going into the final weekend (the Terrapins hold the tiebreaker) and are in good shape for a regionals bid. Iowa also looks to be in a solid position. I’m going to hold off on locking any of these teams up, however, given what happened to Rutgers a year ago, when it finished as runner-up both in the regular season and the conference tournament, only to be snubbed on Selection Monday.
Still, the Hoosiers and Terrapins—if they take care of business this weekend—should have nothing to fear.
Should be in: Indiana, Maryland
Work to do: Iowa, Rutgers
Indiana (39-14, 15-6; RPI: 27; SOS: 80): The Hoosiers are in the best standing of any team in the Big Ten. IU is tied with Maryland atop the standings, though it this weekend faces a tricky trip to Michigan State. The Hoosiers have the best RPI in the conference and a strong overall resume. Take care of business this weekend and they’ll be in fine shape.
Iowa (33-12, 13-7; RPI: 29; SOS: 77): A sweep of Michigan State last weekend bolstered Iowa’s resume. The Hawkeyes’ RPI has edged into the top 30 and they’re just 1.5 games behind the conference leaders. They finish this weekend at Northwestern, where a series win would be enough to keep their RPI in a strong spot. All of that indicates the Hawkeyes are on their way to an at-large bid for the first time since 2015. But right now, Iowa is clearly third in the pecking order, having lost series to both IU and Maryland, and after seeing what happened to Rutgers a year ago, it would be wise not to slip up in the final two weeks.
Maryland (35-18, 15-6; RPI: 49; SOS: 69): The Terrapins are in first place in the Big Ten and while their RPI looks bubbly, they’ll be in fine shape as long as they take care of business this weekend at Penn State. Maryland is in the driver’s seat for a second straight conference title and on track for a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
Rutgers (32-19, 13-8; RPI: 50; SOS: 72): The Scarlet Knights were one of the first teams left out of the field last year and they’re likely again headed for bubble territory this season. Their RPI is bubbly and they’re in a three-way tie for fourth place in the conference standings. Getting a sweep this weekend at Minnesota would be a boost, but it wouldn’t solve Rutgers’ biggest problem, which is a lack of marquee wins (2-8 vs. top 50). It’ll go to the Big Ten Tournament still with work to do.
Stanford last weekend clinched the Pac-12 title and this week Oregon State joins it as a lock. Washington is in an outstanding position as well.
Bubble watchers should keep an eye on Arizona this week, as Southern California travels to Arizona and UCLA goes to Arizona State. Both those series will have much on the line.
Lock: Oregon State, Stanford
Should be in: Washington
Work to do: Arizona State, Oregon Southern California, UCLA
Arizona State (29-21, 14-12; RPI: 54; SOS: 42): The Sun Devils have lost nine of their last 10 games and have been swept in back-to-back weekends. That skid has pushed ASU into bubbly territory. While that’s not good, the path ahead is at least clear. The Sun Devils need a series win this weekend against UCLA to feel secure. The good news for ASU is that it’s back at home this weekend, where it’s 20-8 this season. Using that home-field advantage is critical.
Oregon (31-19, 14-13; RPI: 39; SOS: 18): The Ducks have lost seven of their last eight games, falling out of the hosting and Pac-12 title race in the process. Last weekend’s sweep at home was especially bad and leaves Oregon somewhat vulnerable to the bubble. It needs a series win this weekend at Utah to feel secure. A series loss would leave the Ducks at .500 in the Pac-12 and in need of a good showing at the Pac-12 Tournament.
Southern California (32-20-1, 16-11; RPI: 56; SOS: 60): A week ago, I promised we’d dive into the nuances of USC’s resume if it got a series win against Arizona State. Well, the Trojans swept the Sun Devils, holding them to just two runs on the weekend. So, let’s take the plunge. As it turns out, the whole thing is relatively straight forward after the sweep—or at least it should be. No Pac-10/12 team in the super regional era (starting in 1999) has been left out of the NCAA Tournament with at least 17 conference wins. So, win once this weekend and USC would seem to be in good shape. There are still clear issues with the Trojans’ resume—their RPI is a little low, as is their non-conference strength of schedule (161), they are 4-12-1 against top-50 competition and are 6-14-1 away from Dedeaux Field. But they’re also in fourth place in the conference and have several series wins against other Pac-12 contenders. As long as it doesn’t go 0-5 at Arizona and in the Pac-12 Tournament, USC should make a return to regionals.
UCLA (26-21-1, 11-14-1; RPI: 59; SOS: 35): UCLA has been bit hard by the injury bug and it’s now sitting on the wrong side of the bubble staring at a must-win series at Arizona State, where the Sun Devils are 20-8. The Bruins have lost four straight series and their momentum is obviously going in the wrong direction. If UCLA were able to pull something together this weekend at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, it might be able to play its way in during the Pac-12 Tournament. It’s a big ask, however.
Washington (32-14, 16-10; RPI: 32; SOS: 76): Could I lock the Huskies up? Yes. Their sweep at Oregon last weekend pushed them into third place in the Pac-12 standings, got them 16 conference wins and pushed their RPI all the way to 32. Their poor non-conference strength of schedule (272) gives me the tiniest bit of pause, however. If the Huskies went 0-5, they might be in hot water. Even just one win at home this weekend against California would wipe that all away and push them into the lock category.
College baseball’s premier conference is given more leeway on Selection Monday and is the only league that routinely gets at-large bids for teams with losing conference records. In fact, 14 SEC wins is usually plenty and 13 gives teams a fighting chance. Because of that leeway and the strong RPI numbers for the SEC’s top teams, the conference already has eight teams locked into the field.
Auburn and Kentucky are the latest to join the group. Both last weekend got series wins to improve to 14-13 in SEC play and, according to BoydsWorld, can’t fall out of the top 32 in RPI.
With so many teams already having pushed their resumes into great positions, there aren’t many teams from the conference sweating the bubble. But there are still a few teams that will be looking to bolster their chances this weekend and next week in Hoover.
Locks: Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Kentucky, LSU, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt
Should be in: Alabama
Work to do: Georgia, Missouri, Texas A&M
Alabama (35-17, 13-14; RPI: 11; SOS: 13): The Crimson Tide have won back-to-back series against Vanderbilt and Texas A&M pushing them into strong shape to make the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. Alabama’s high-level metrics are probably enough to carry the day even with just 13 SEC wins, but it could avoid any drama with a win this weekend against Mississippi. Of course, Alabama’s high-level metrics also have it in a position where it can dream about hosting—though that probably requires a sweep this weekend. Ultimately, Alabama is in fine shape.
Georgia (28-24, 10-17; RPI: 37; SOS: 8): The Bulldogs’ NCAA Tournament hopes last week were dealt a crushing blow when they were swept at Missouri. Georgia now faces a must-win series against LSU. The good news is that it’s at Foley Field, where the Bulldogs have already taken down Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee, and the Tigers come to town having lost back-to-back series. It’s still a big hill for Georgia to climb and unless it sweeps LSU, it will still have work to do at the SEC Tournament.
Missouri (30-20, 10-17; RPI: 38, SOS: 33): Last weekend’s sweep of Georgia has the Tigers back in the bubble mix. The path ahead remains very difficult, however. They this weekend face a must-win series at Auburn, which is challenging enough, even before you consider that Mizzou is 1-11 in SEC road games this season. Further, even a series win won’t be enough on its own for Mizzou. Anything short of a sweep will leave it with work to do next week at the SEC Tournament.
Texas A&M (30-22, 12-15; RPI: 40; SOS: 10): Fresh off a crucial series win against Florida, Texas A&M last weekend took a step back with a home series loss against Alabama. The Aggies now go on the road to Mississippi State, which is still fighting for the last spot in the SEC Tournament and last weekend won a series at LSU. A series win this weekend would ease the pressure on the Aggies at the SEC Tournament. But A&M probably doesn’t have a strong enough RPI to get into the NCAA Tournament with just 13 SEC wins. A series loss in Starkville would leave it facing a must-win game on Tuesday in Hoover.
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The Sun Belt this year has emerged as a high-level baseball conference, as was expected when it added James Madison, Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Miss. It ranks fifth in conference RPI and is positioned to be rewarded on Selection Monday with multiple at-large opportunities.
Locks: Coastal Carolina, Southern Miss
Should be in: None
Work to do: Louisiana-Lafayette, Texas State, Troy
Louisiana-Lafayette (35-18, 17-10; RPI: 67; SOS: 125): The Ragin’ Cajuns last weekend landed a critical sweep against Texas State and now sit in third place in the Sun Belt standings. Their resume has some intriguing pieces, starting with their conference positioning. They’re also 7-7 against top-50 competition (3-4 vs. Top 25), a strong number for a bubble team. Louisiana is facing two key problems, however. First, is its RPI. The second is its series this weekend at Southern Miss. The Cajuns need to upset the Golden Eagles to maintain their position in the conference standings and lift their RPI.
Texas State (33-20, 15-12; RPI: 48; SOS: 54): The Bobcats’ hopes have taken a hit over the last week as they’ve hit a four-game skid, including getting swept last weekend at Louisiana-Lafayette. Texas State still has a reasonable path forward, however. It this weekend hosts Louisiana-Monroe, which has already been eliminated from the Sun Belt Tournament chase. It won’t help the Bobcats’ RPI any, but a sweep would lift it in the conference standings, perhaps all the way to third. That would provide a nice lift to the resume.
Troy (36-17, 16-11; RPI: 36; SOS: 61): The Trojans last weekend got a needed sweep at last-place Marshall and remain on track for regionals. A series win this weekend at home against Appalachian State would probably sew up a bid.
There are several impressive teams outside college baseball’s biggest leagues and at least one or two of these teams is likely to host a regional.
No new teams from this group join the locks this week and several teams listed here are in dire straits. The Big West is the place to go for bubble watchers this week, as Cal State Fullerton, UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara are all looking to bounce back after tough weekends.
Locks: Campbell, Connecticut, Dallas Baptist, East Carolina, Indiana State
Should be in: Cal State Fullerton, Northeastern, UC Santa Barbara
Work to do: Elon, Florida Gulf Coast, Kent State, Texas-San Antonio, UC Irvine, UNC Wilmington, Xavier
Cal State Fullerton (28-19, 17-7; RPI: 57; SOS: 56): The Titans last weekend took a brutal sweep at home against UC San Diego, and they’ve lost six straight games. All of that has seen their RPI tumble out of the top 50 and into some hot water. The Big West has two weeks left in its season and Fullerton holds a one-game lead on UCSB for the league title (UCSD is a half-game back but isn’t eligible for the league’s auto-bid until its reclassification period form Division II ends in two years). Fullerton’s RPI is simply never going to be great now and it needs to win its final two series (Long Beach State, at Cal Poly). Its overall metrics are strong, but it can’t afford any more slip ups.
Elon (30-20, 17-9; RPI: 64; SOS: 58): The Phoenix over the last two weeks have taken three losses to teams in the bottom half of RPI and that’s done a real number on its RPI. Elon is still in the mix to win the Colonial Athletic Association title, which would be a nice feather in its cap, but it needs a big finish this weekend at Hofstra. Even then, it’s going to need to lift its RPI with a conference tournament run.
Florida Gulf Coast (37-15, 19-8; RPI: 56; SOS: 177): While the Eagles have gone 1-3 over the last week and fallen behind Lipscomb in the ASUN Conference standings, their RPI has remained remarkably sticky in the top 60. There are still some strong elements to their resume and the ASUN Tournament is set up to protect the RPI of a team like FGCU. But for any of that to matter, FGCU has to get out of its swoon with a series win (and maybe sweep) of Kennesaw State.
Kent State (35-14, 21-6; RPI: 61, SOS: 212): The Golden Flashes have won 11 of their last 13 games and pushed their RPI up to 61. There are some strong points to their resume but first they face a tough test this weekend at Ball State, which is in second place in the Mid-American Conference. Kent State faces an uphill battle to an at-large bid because two losses in the MAC Tournament would likely ruin its RPI, but it’s got to get through BSU before that matters.
Northeastern (39-11, 18-9; RPI: 33; SOS: 186): The Huskies have quite the interesting resume. They have a top-35 RPI, rank eighth in the country in wins and are in second place in a solid CAA. All that points toward an NCAA Tournament bid. But Northeastern has lost back-to-back series against UNC Wilmington and William & Mary and now faces a difficult final weekend against Charleston. It also has one of the worst strength of schedules of any team in the at-large discussion and its non-conference mark (226) isn’t any better. That’s not a primary factor and being 7-0 against BC, UConn, Duke, Indiana State and Maryland helps cancel that out, but it’s part of what the Huskies are dealing with. Its RPI is keeping Northeastern in a good spot, but it could use a home series win this weekend.
Texas-San Antonio (36-16, 19-7; RPI: 65; SOS: 151): Last weekend was brutal for the Roadrunners, as they were swept at home by Dallas Baptist. The teams came into the weekend neck-and-neck in the Conference USA title race, but the sweep won it for the Patriots and now leaves the Roadrunners on the wrong side of the bubble. It’s hard to chart a path forward for UTSA. Their RPI is 65, they are 2-4 against top-50 competition and their strength of schedule can be held against them. They’re clearly the second-best team in a solid conference, but it feels like that won’t be enough. All UTSA can do now is win as many games as it can.
UC Irvine (32-17, 13-11; RPI: 45; SOS: 64): The Anteaters’ metrics are keeping them bubbly. They went 1-3 last week but still are in solid shape in RPI. The problem now is that UCI is going to have to be perfect to stay there as it faces UC Davis and UC Riverside, the two worst teams in the Big West standings, over the final two weeks. The Anteaters may need to win out.
UC Santa Barbara (33-15, 16-8; RPI: 42; SOS: 86): Despite a series loss at Long Beach State, UCSB didn’t budge in RPI and actually improved its standing in the Big West race, thanks to Fullerton’s slip up. UCSB needs to take care of business this weekend at home against Cal Poly before traveling to Hawaii for its final weekend. The Gauchos are still in fine shape for a fourth straight trip to regionals.
UNC Wilmington (28-21, 17-8; RPI: 62; SOS: 49): The Seahawks have lost four of their last five games, all of which came against solid competition. It hasn’t much hurt their case as their metrics remain about the same and they’re still in first place in the CAA but count it all as a missed opportunity. UNCW needs to break out of its skid with a series win this weekend against William & Mary to stay in the hunt.
Xavier (33-20, 13-5; RPI: 44; SOS: 81): The Musketeers are hanging tough in the bubble fight. They won a series at St. John’s and then beat Michigan this week, pushing their RPI back into the top 45. Xavier is also still just a half-game behind UConn in the Big East standings. It probably this weekend needs a sweep of Georgetown to be on the right side of the bubble going into the Big East Tournament.