Predicting The Field Of 64: April 4

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Gainesville, Fla. Los Angeles College Station, Texas Fayetteville, Ark.
1. (1) Florida^* 1. UCLA^ 1. (5) Texas A&M^* 1. Arkansas^
2. Elon* 2. San Diego* 2. Mississippi State 2. Virginia
3. Coastal Carolina* 3. UC Irvine 3. Sam Houston State* 3. Missouri State*
4. Bethune-Cookman* 4. Cornell* 4. Army* 4. Oral Roberts*

Tallahassee, Fla. Baton Rouge, La. Stanford, Calif. Coral Gables, Fla.
1. (2) Florida State^* 1. Louisiana State^ 1. (6) Stanford^ 1. Miami^
2. Mississippi 2. Georgia Tech 2. Auburn 2. Central Florida
3. Stetson 3. Belmont* 3. Wake Forest 3. Florida Atlantic*
4. Canisius* 4. Jackson State* 4. Cal Poly 4. Rhode Island*

Tucson Fullerton, Calif. Lexington, Ky. West Lafayette, Ind.
1. (3) Arizona^* 1. Cal State Fullerton^* 1. (7) Kentucky^ 1. Purdue^*
2. New Mexico State* 2. Oregon State 2. Louisville* 2. Oregon
3. Gonzaga 3. Pepperdine 3. Southern California 3. Georgia
4. Central Connecticut State* 4. Michigan State 4. Wright State* 4. Missouri

Chapel Hill, N.C. Columbia, S.C. Houston Waco, Texas
1. (4) North Carolina^ 1. South Carolina^ 1. (8) Rice^* 1. Baylor^
2. East Carolina 2. Clemson 2. Texas 2. North Carolina State
3. Appalachian State 3. College of Charleston 3. Texas State 3. Texas Christian*
4. Stony Brook* 4. UNC Wilmington* 4. Austin Peay State* 4. Kent State*

* Automatic qualifier
^Regional host

Field Analysis

• The Big 12 is down in 2012, which creates an interesting scramble for the last handful of at-large bids. We project Texas A&M to catch Baylor (currently 9-0 in the league, sitting atop the standings) for the conference title, earning the Aggies a national seed. Baylor lands a home regional, and Texas earns a No. 2 seed in a regional based on its strong nonconference schedule and anticipated strong finish in the Big 12. But those are the only three "safe" Big 12 teams. Missouri ranks 97th in the NCAA's official Ratings Percentage Index report, and Oklahoma is 93rd. Both teams have considerable work to do in order to boost their RPIs into at-large range, but we expect Missouri to have more success in that endeavor, partly because the Sooners still have three RPI-killing games on their schedule against No. 246 Alabama State, three against No. 176 Oklahoma State and three against No. 168 Kansas. For that reason, this weekend's series at Texas A&M is critical for Oklahoma, but we expect the Aggies to hold serve at home, and the Sooners to land outside the field of 64. The other factor working against OU is that it lost its head-to-head series at fellow bubble dweller Pepperdine, which owns a far better RPI ranking (No. 26). So the Waves get in despite their recent skid. Missouri has series remaining against Kansas State (also outside the top 100) and Kansas, but the Tigers also have home series against Baylor and Texas. Those games are paramount for Mizzou, but because they are at home, we'll give the Tigers the benefit of the doubt by awarding them one of the final at-large spots.

• The Big 12 is usually a safe bet to garner between five and eight bids, but since we are projecting just four Big 12 teams to make the field, other conferences will benefit. Michigan State (No. 53) and Cal Poly (No. 57) earn our final at-large spots as No. 4 seeds, giving the Big Ten two bids and the Big West three. The Mustangs largely took care of business outside conference play, earning big sweeps against Oklahoma State and at Loyola Marymount, plus taking two of three from fellow bubble team Washington (which lands outside our field despite its No. 35 RPI, based on our expectation that it will encounter some difficulty against its rigorous Pac-12 schedule). The Spartans have little room for error against a Big Ten schedule that has very few robust RPIs (only Purdue, Illinois and Minnesota are inside the top 100), but we expect the talented Spartans to handle their conference schedule with aplomb.

• The Boilermakers, meanwhile, earn a hosting nod over warm-weather powers Mississippi, UCF and N.C. State based partly on geographic diversity and partly on their stellar work against a stout nonconference schedule. Purdue's new ballpark, Alexander Field, is not yet ready for play, but there is a small chance it could be ready in time for regionals, so for now we'll place the regional in West Lafayette—call it a place-holder. But if Alexander isn't ready, Purdue has other local hosting options, including Parkview Field in Fort Wayne and U.S. Steel Yard in Gary. Assuming the Boilermakers (No. 16 in the RPI) continue their strong play, it seems very likely the committee would choose to reward them with a home regional, even when their conference schedule inevitably drags down their RPI.

• If regionals started today, North Carolina State would surely host a regional, with a robust RPI ranking (No. 5). But Miami isn't too far behind at No. 11, and we have more faith in the ability of Miami's veteran-laden pitching staff to hold up in the second half than N.C. State's young staff, so we're giving the Hurricanes the third host site out of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Certainly, the ACC could earn a fourth host, as it has the strongest conference RPI, but we expect the SEC to assert itself as the strongest conference by season's end, so the SEC gets rewarded with five hosts. Louisiana State's recent sweep of Arkansas puts the Tigers ahead of the Hogs in the hosting pecking order, but we believe strongly in Arkansas' talent, and we expect it to rebound with a strong second half to earn a host site. The same goes for South Carolina, though it remains behind Kentucky after getting swept in Lexington. The Wildcats rank fourth in the RPI, and they have proven that their hot start was no fluke. UK is talented enough to maintain a high level of play in the second half and earn the SEC's second national seed. Kentucky also would give the committee a relatively Northern locale for a regional.

• The race for national seeds and host sites in the West will be interesting to watch. Arizona is in the catbird seat after sweeping Stanford, but the Cardinal's nonconference body of work is loud, and its talent is too rich to expect it to continue scuffling. Stanford edges UCLA for the Pac-12's second national seed, but the Bruins are right in the mix and still land a home regional, as does Cal State Fullerton. With four hosts in the West, Oregon State (No. 21) gets squeezed out, but the Beavers are certainly in position to beat out one of the other four teams for a host spot with a strong second half.

• Speaking of the West, the surprise out of the West is New Mexico State of the Western Athletic Conference as a No. 2 seed. Before you snicker, consider the Aggies won three of four against Wake Forest to open the season, swept a two-game set at Arizona and rank No. 15 in the NCAA RPI. We sent the Aggies back to Tucson for regionals.

• Clemson and South Carolina have not met in regionals or super regionals since the field expanded to 64 teams, while other geographic rivals (like Miami and Florida) are paired against each other over and over again. It's time for the Tigers and Gamecocks to meet in a regional, and we're giving Clemson a No. 2 seed in Columbia—but it still has work to do to overcome its rocky first half and land a No. 2. This past weekend's series win against Miami was a nice start, boosting the Tigers 16 spots to No. 32 in the RPI. Elsewhere, we made an effort to avoid repeating the same old pairings, matching up Miami with Stanford (instead of Florida) and sending Elon and Coastal Carolina to Gainesville instead of Chapel Hill. But some geographic considerations are inescapable, which is why East Carolina winds up back in Chapel Hill, College of Charleston winds up in Columbia, Texas goes to Houston, San Diego and UC Irvine head to Los Angeles, etc.

• The SEC leads all conferences with nine bids, though Georgia (No. 54) was our SEC team in as a No. 3; it could earn a No. 2 seed with a hot streak in the second half. The ACC is next with eight, followed by the Pac-12 with six. Arizona State is ineligible, which helps Southern California snag the Pac-12's final berth. The Trojans are No. 41 in the RPI and are better positioned than fellow bubble teams California, Washington and Washington State to make a run at regionals based on a combination of RPI, experience and roster depth.

• The West Coast and Southern conferences capitalize on the Big 12 vacuum by landing three bids apiece. Appalachian State makes its first regional since 1986, thanks to a strong RPI (No. 36) buoyed by its early series win at LSU. The Mountaineers, like the Phoenix and Cougars, have gotten off to a nice start in SoCon play, and all three teams have solid RPIs. The Southland and Atlantic Sun conferences join the Big Ten as two-bid leagues. Sam Houston State's recent surge has catapulted it to No. 34 in the RPI, and its sweep of Texas State put it in the SLC's driver seat. But Texas State is actually ahead in the RPI (No. 29), putting it in good at-large position. In the A-Sun, defending champ Belmont proved it will again be a major factor by winning back-to-back series against Stetson and at struggling Jacksonville. We'll reward the Bruins by giving them the A-Sun's automatic bid, while Stetson (No. 73) gets in as an at-large based on our expectation that its good talent and loads of experience will carry it to a strong second half and an improved RPI.