Fairfield's Unprecedented Resume Challenges NCAA Tournament Projections
One of the most intriguing – and most difficult – questions when projecting the Field of 64 at this stage is what to make of Fairfield.
The Stags this week entered the Top 25 for the first time in program history at No. 23 after improving to 25-0 on the season. Like all Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference teams, they are playing a conference-only slate this season due to Covid-19 protocols. The Stags rank No. 2 in RPI, though the system needs non-conference data to function properly and therefore is not designed to evaluate Fairfield or other teams playing conference-only schedules.
All that makes for perhaps the most challenging NCAA Tournament resume in the country. Fairfield still has a few weeks to go in the regular season and if it were to lose a series, its RPI would drop out of the stratosphere and it would start to look more like other teams dominating their smaller conference schedules, thereby clarifying its situation for the selection committee. It likely wouldn’t be much different than Jackson State (24-8, 18-0) or Bryant (17-10-1, 13-2), which have RPIs around 100 are on track to be No. 4 seeds.
But what if Fairfield completes an undefeated or even a one- or two-loss season? Where then should the Stags be seeded? Could it host – or at least be a No. 1 seed?
This is an unprecedented situation brought on by a combination of the MAAC’s decision to play a conference-only schedule and Fairfield’s dominance in the league. The Stags are averaging 8.48 runs per game, more than 2.5 runs more than any other team in the conference. They lead the MAAC with a 2.63 team ERA and are also the best fielding team (.974) in the conference.
While there’s never been a situation quite like this, the 2016 season does provide a pair of interesting comparisons. That year, Alabama State went 28-0 in the SWAC (including the conference tournament) but just 10-15 in regular-season non-conference play. The Yellow Jackets ranked No. 158 in RPI on Selection Monday. They were sent to the Tallahassee Regional as a No. 4 seed.
Bryant went 29-4 in the Northeast Conference (including the conference tournament) and 18-6 in regular-season non-conference play, including wins against Boston College, Kentucky, Maryland and San Diego State. The Bulldogs were No. 28 in RPI on Selection Monday. They received a No. 2 seed in the Charlottesville Regional.
How Fairfield will be treated this year likely will come down to how much the selection committee adjusts to RPI’s flaws when evaluating teams playing conference-only schedules. If the committee takes RPI largely at face value, Fairfield – even with one or two losses – would merit at least a No. 2 seed.
Setting aside the logistical questions of hosting and the bid process, Fairfield has two things going for it to be a No. 1 seed: the No. 2 RPI and a zero in the loss column (those two are linked). Should the Stags lose, their RPI will drop and any conversation about a top seed likely ends. It already would be unprecedented for a top seed to come from the MAAC and to do so without any non-conference wins seems highly unlikely, even in this unique season with an altered host selection process that could enable the selection committee to elevate geography and travel costs as a more important criterion, if it wanted.
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If, however, the selection committee sees the flaws of RPI for teams playing conference-only schedules, Fairfield’s seeding gets even murkier. The selection committee looks at a variety of factors when evaluating teams, including RPI, the rankings of regional advisory committees and conference standings.
The RACs can be influential and largely are based on the eye test and how coaches in the area evaluate teams. But how many coaches in the Northeast have been watching Fairfield? The Stags stream their games online and coaches can get video, but only MAAC coaches will have seen them live. Not only does a lack of non-conference games mean fewer coaches are seeing them play live, it also means there’s no simple measuring stick for Fairfield or its opponents.
So, what is the selection committee to do? In the latest Projected Field of 64, I placed Fairfield as the No. 3 seed in the Nashville Regional. That seeding is an acknowledgement both of what Fairfield has accomplished and an expectation that it will not be undefeated on Selection Monday because even as dominant as it has been, this is still baseball and losses happen. This is the first time this season, more than a month into our weekly projections, that Fairfield has not been a No. 4 seed. The longer the Stags go into the season with a zero in the loss column, the higher they will climb on a seed list, as the chances of them taking a loss decrease.
On and off the field, Fairfield’s quest for an undefeated season will be fascinating to follow down the stretch.