NCAA Tournament Field of 64 Analysis
Conference records matter.
If there’s one takeaway from the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s 64-team field that was announced Monday, it’s that.
Performance in-conference loomed large in the committee’s decision-making—from seeding to which bubble teams ultimately made the cut.
Regular season dominance was the reason why Florida was a shoo-in for the No. 1 overall seed, despite a poor showing in the Southeastern Conference Tournament; it was the reason why Atlantic Coast Conference regular season title-winner North Carolina earned the No. 6 national seed over ACC Tournament winner Florida State’s No. 7 seed; it’s why Georgia, which tied for the second-best record in the SEC, earned the final national seed over third-place Big 12 Conference team Texas Tech; and it’s why teams like Kentucky and Arizona are on the outside looking in. Only one team in the 64-team field has a conference record below .500, which was a conscious choice by the committee.
For the first time, the selection committee seeded teams 1-16 instead of stopping at 1-8, pairing regionals based on seeding instead of geography. Just like in years past, the top eight national seeds still host through super regionals, should they advance past the NCAA Tournament’s first round, which kicks off this Friday.
That seeding, in order: Florida, Stanford, Oregon State, Mississippi, Arkansas, North Carolina, Florida State, Georgia, Texas Tech, Clemson, Stetson, East Carolina, Texas, Minnesota, Coastal Carolina and North Carolina State.
The last four at-large teams selected into the field were Dallas Baptist, Northeastern, Oklahoma State and Troy, and the first four out were Arizona, Illinois, Kentucky and Central Florida. The full bracket can be viewed here.
The 64-team field closely mirrored Baseball America’s final projections from Sunday night, with 63 of BA’s projected 64 teams making the cut. The lone difference: Colonial Athletic Association regular season champion Northeastern earned an at-large bid over Kentucky.
Committee chairman Ray Tanner, also the athletic director and former head baseball coach at South Carolina, said that limiting the field to just 64 teams has gotten more difficult each year he’s been involved in the process.
“I think it’s getting harder—and that’s good news,” Tanner said. “College baseball across the country is probably better, the investment across the country is better than ever . . . and the product on the field is better than ever. It’s not easy now. It speaks to the value of our game right now.”
Below is a look at some of the committee’s toughest decisions.
The Wildcats are the highest RPI team (No. 30) left out of the field. And with a roster stacked with draft talent such as righthander Sean Hjelle and outfielder Tristan Pompey, the Wildcats are also the field’s most talented snub.
Kentucky has a number of metrics working in its favor: a 16-16 record against RPI top 50 teams, the No. 22 strength of schedule, series wins against tournament teams Texas Tech, Auburn, South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi State. But what steered the 10-member selection committee away from the Wildcats was the team’s 13-17 SEC record (compared to 34-22 overall) and their fifth-place finish in the SEC East.
Kentucky entered the SEC Tournament with a chance to improve its resume, but the Wildcats lost the lone game they played, against Auburn.
Kentucky staying home is a key example of the committee showing a preference for conference record over raw metrics.
“We know Kentucky has a very good team,” Tanner said. “They were 13-17 in the regular season. They had a chance to enhance their resume. They didn’t do that. Did it all come down to the SEC Tournament? No, it didn’t.
“They had a really strong metric package—they won five series, they lost five series. But the sub-.500 (conference record) stood out to the committee. Had it been a game or two (under .500) it might not have mattered, but it ended up being four in the regular season and five if you count the SEC Tournament.
“There is, I guess, a trend with this committee. Sub-.500 teams we pay attention to. A couple of years ago, there were four or five in the field. Last year there was zero. This year there is one team. I think that is a trend.”
Comparing Kentucky’s resume to Northeastern, Tanner said the committee was more impressed with the Huskies’ complete body of work. The team went 36-19 and 17-6 in the CAA to win the regular season title, before eventually losing to UNC Wilmington in the conference tournament championship game. The Huskies have a lower RPI than Kentucky (No. 35 compared to No. 30) and have far fewer top 50 RPI wins (3-9 vs. 16-16).
Of course, those metrics are largely impacted by the conference each team belongs to. Kentucky plays in the No. 1 RPI conference in the country, while the CAA ranked No. 13 in conference RPI. That disparity was factored in by the committee, Tanner said, but it wasn’t enough to swing the decision in Kentucky’s favor.
“Northeastern didn’t have the same opportunities than a team in an ACC and SEC tournament,” Tanner said. “But they won the regular season and played in the conference championship, and if you look at that, they had a really good year. Comparing those teams head to head, you take a look at how they finished in their leagues.
“. . . What you do during the season, your body of work—we’re rewarding teams who finished well, whether it’s regular season or tournament or both.”
N.C. State Hosting Over Connecticut
When the committee announced its 16 regional host sites Sunday night, one of the more controversial decisions was placing a regional in Raleigh, N.C., instead of Storrs, Conn.
Looking at N.C. State and UConn head to head, the Huskies had the better RPI (No. 16 vs. No. 20), more top 50 wins (11-9 vs. 9-8), more top 100 wins (22-13 vs. 20-12) and a better non-conference strength of schedule (107 vs. 178) than the Wolfpack. Connecticut made it to the American Athletic Conference Tournament championship game against ECU and lost by one run, while the Wolfpack went 0-2 in the ACC Tournament.
While those metrics would seem to favor UConn, Tanner said that the committee preferred the Wolfpack’s overall body of work and—once again—its conference record.
N.C. State, 40-16 overall, went 19-11 in the ACC and lost just two weekend series the entire season. Those series losses were against top-eight seeds UNC at home and FSU on the road. For Tanner and the committee, that success in conference was louder than any other metric. UConn went 35-20 overall and 14-10 in the American.
“N.C. State only lost two series the entire year and Connecticut lost four,” Tanner said. “(The Huskies) were very close to being a host. N.C. State’s two conference loses were to Florida State and North Carolina and Connecticut’s were a little different. Sometimes you really split hairs.”
UConn’s series losses came against North Florida (No. 121 RPI), Citadel (No. 244 RPI) and in-conference against at-large teams South Florida and Houston.
Instead of hosting, the Huskies will be a No. 2 seed in Coastal Carolina’s regional, another team that was on the hosting bubble and another team that has a lower RPI (No. 17) than UConn does. That regional could be one of the more competitive regionals in the country with a strong No. 3 seed in Washington as well.
N.C. State, by virtue of being the No. 16 seed, will host the highest-RPI No. 2 seed in the field in Auburn. At No. 13 in the RPI, the Tigers were another team very much in the hosting discussion but were weighed down in the committee’s eyes by their 15-15 SEC showing.
Both of those regionals offer plenty of upset potential.
Under The Radar: Arkansas State Starts Red Hot In Sun Belt Play
Arkansas State has swept two straight series and looks like a contender in the Sun Belt West Division as it aims for its first regionals appearance since 1994.
Gators At The Top
The reigning national champion Florida Gators became the first program to ever earn a third No. 1 national seed after previously earning the No. 1 seed in 2016 and 2012.
Also No. 1 in the Baseball America Top 25, powered by Louisville Slugger, the Gators (42-17, 20-10 SEC) left little doubt they were the best team in the country this season—at least until the final two weeks.
After clinching the SEC regular season title in the penultimate series of the year, the Gators seemingly took their foot off the gas pedal, dropping six of their last seven games, including a 1-2 showing in the SEC Tournament. That came after Florida had won every previous weekend series this season.
However, despite that end-of-season slide, Tanner said there was little discussion about any other team usurping the Gators at No. 1.
“Being an AD in the SEC, I certainly follow what goes on,” Tanner said. “They were incredible throughout the majority of the season, and they didn’t finish strong. As we collected our data, I was curious to see if they were going to be a clear-cut No. 1, and they continued to be, despite not finishing the way Coach (Kevin) O’Sullivan would want them to finish.
“Florida stood alone at the top of the pack.”
In a field full of tough decisions, that one proved easiest.