Michael Farris, UC Riverside - 1

Michael Farris' defense at third base has been key for UC Riverside. (Shotgun Spratling)

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How The (Big) West Is Won

Analysis

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — UC Riverside head coach Troy Percival sat in his office after a 3-2 victory Tuesday night and stared at his computer screen. He refreshed once, twice, three times.

In abject disbelief, he turned to his assistants, “Can you believe this (expletive)?”

Percival’s Highlanders had just defeated traditional West Coast Conference power San Diego, and yet they had slid in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) rankings. The web site Percival was viewing featured a “real-time” RPI that updated as each score was posted. Despite a win over a team much higher in the RPI rankings, the Highlanders had fallen from No. 199 to No. 202. Teams such as Bethune-Cookman and Nebraska-Omaha made jumps above UC Riverside with wins over Stetson and Air Force, respectively. Both teams were ranked lower in the RPI than San Diego, but because Bethune-Cookman and Nebraska-Omaha’s wins came on the road, they hopped over Riverside.

Figuring out the RPI is probably the second hardest task in college baseball behind recruiting and balancing the scholarship numbers — which is the most difficult thing in all athletics with so many variables from trying to get guys on campus and not necessarily knowing who may leave each season. Relatively new coaches, such as Percival in his second year leading the Highlanders, and veteran dugout warriors are often equally flummoxed by the RPI number that is often one of the top criteria looked at when considering at-large candidacy leading into the postseason.

Even though Riverside has won five of six, including winning a series against Long Beach State, who was ranked No. 18 in the D1Baseball Top 25 at the time, the traction has been minimal in the RPI rankings. It is already apparent that even if the Highlanders won the final 17 games on their schedule, they probably still wouldn’t be boosted up high enough to be considered for an at-large berth by the NCAA tournament committee. As Percival is learning, that’s the pain of RPI, especially on the West Coast where the formula slightly skews things against teams since home games are weighted differently than road games.

Instead of relying on the RPI and a potential at-large berth, UC Riverside knows it has to go for the automatic bid awarded to the Big West Conference champion. Unlike most conferences in the country, the Big West does not have a conference tournament. Winning the Big West automatic bid is about consistency in league play rather than getting hot at the right time on the final weekend of the regular season. Sitting at 5-4, the Highlanders are off to a solid start in conference and have a shot at their first winning record in the Big West in six years. But there is no soft spot in the schedule as Hawaii is the only conference foe remaining with an overall record below .500, and the 18-20 Warriors are currently third in the conference, 1.5 games back.

The Big West is all jumbled together at the top with seven of the nine teams within 2.5 games of first place. The conference could potentially get two, three or maybe even four teams into the NCAA tournament, but the easiest way in is to take the title.

Here’s what each of the Big West teams needs to do to win the conference crown and the automatic berth in the regionals (in order of current conference record):


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