Parity Reigns This March In Men’s Basketball, Will Baseball Follow?

Image credit: (Photo by Jason Whitman/Getty Images).

The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is in full swing. After beginning last week, there are now 16 teams left in the event, representing 11 conferences.

Major conferences like the SEC and the Big East lead the way with three teams each, but also remaining are Conference USA and the Ivy League, neither of which has had a team reach the tournament’s second weekend in more than a decade. The diversity of the field stands out and could capture the nation’s attention this weekend.

This is just the third time 11 conferences have been represented in the Sweet 16, tying a record set in 1991 and 2010. So, in the men’s basketball tournament, this kind of diversity is rare, but not unprecedented. But what about baseball? How many conferences typically send a team to super regionals?

Since super regionals were created when the baseball tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1999, the record number for conferences represented in super regionals is 10. It’s happened just once, in 2014. That year, the Big 12 led the way with four teams in super regionals (Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas Christian and Texas Tech) and the ACC (Maryland and Virginia), American (Houston and Louisville) and SEC (Mississippi and Vanderbilt) had two each. Seven other conferences had a team win regionals—ACC (Virginia), Atlantic Sun (Kennesaw State), Big West (UC Irvine), Colonial (College of Charleston), Pac-12 (Stanford), Sun Belt (Louisiana-Lafayette) and West Coast (Pepperdine).

(In 2002 and 2003, there were nine conferences represented in super regionals, plus Miami, which at the time was independent. That’s not quite the same as 10 different conferences, particularly in 2002, as the Big East—where the rest of Miami’s athletic teams played—was already represented in super regionals.)

The average number of conferences represented in super regionals is 7.7 and the median is eight. But lately that number has been on the decline. Six conferences had super regional teams in 2019 and 2021, and seven conferences were represented in the round in 2022.

That’s unlikely to change this year. In the most recent Top 25, nine conferences are represented, including four leagues by just one team (American, East Carolina; Big South, Campbell; Big Ten, Iowa; Big West, UC Santa Barbara). The ACC and SEC account for a combined 16 teams.

For fans of Cinderella runs, the baseball tournament has not been the place to find them lately. While Ole Miss last year did win the national championship after being one of the last four teams selected to the Field of 64, it also is a powerhouse program from the SEC. Not since 2018, when Stetson and Tennessee Tech won regionals, has the tournament provided the kind of stories that played out on the hardwood last weekend.

Whether that’s a good thing for college baseball can be debated. There’s something to be said for the teams that invest the most in the sport getting rewarded, perhaps forcing others to step up to compete. But bringing teams from outside the establishment to the sport’s forefront in June, when the spotlight shines the brightest, has real benefits as college baseball looks to grow its reach.

It remains to be seen how the latest round of conference realignment will affect conference representation in the NCAA Tournament and each successive round. The Big 12 has had a team in super regionals in all 23 years the round has existed and while swapping Oklahoma and Texas for Brigham Young, UCF, Cincinnati and Houston hurts its chances of continuing that streak, it still has powerhouses like Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas Tech in its ranks. The defection of Southern California and UCLA to the Big Ten likely helps conference diversity, as the Pac-12 still has Arizona, Oregon State and Stanford (and others) to carry its banner, while the Big Ten becomes more likely to have a team advance past regionals.

Further down the conference hierarchy, the Sun Belt (Old Dominion and Southern Mississippi) and Conference USA (Dallas Baptist, Kennesaw State and Liberty) have made additions that could increase their presence in super regionals in coming seasons. While that may make the Sun Belt and C-USA more regular participants in super regionals, it also decreases the chances of a run for other leagues.

Cross sports comparisons like these are also tricky because of the differences in which teams and conferences excel at what sports. In baseball, a run by Xavier to the second weekend of the tournament would be hailed as an upset and an exciting development. The Musketeers are off to a solid 10-9 start this year, but haven’t advanced past regionals in four NCAA Tournament appearances. In men’s basketball, Xavier advancing to the Sweet 16, as it did this year to take on Texas, is taken as a return to glory for the program. Meanwhile, if a Big West team was in the Sweet 16, it would be a Cinderella story. In baseball, a Big West team has made super regionals in 17 of the 23 seasons the round has existed (although none has made it since 2018).

In the end, conference representation in super regionals probably isn’t more than a bragging point for fans and conference offices, particularly because the baseball tournament doesn’t distribute revenue in the same way as basketball (which rewards on-court performance). But as college sports fans prepare to this weekend watch inter-regional, inter-conference matchups like Princeton vs. Creighton and San Diego State vs. Alabama on the hardwood, it’s hard not to be wistful for some of those same kind of series on the diamond in June.

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