Instant Reaction: Selection Day Decisions

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The NCAA postseason field of 64 is out and our staff has instant analysis on the selections.

Aaron Fitt’s Take

Some years, putting together the NCAA tournament field of 64 isn’t really that difficult. This year, it was brutal.

When we assembled our final projection on Sunday night, we agonized over the glut of worthy teams on the bubble. The bubble was smaller than usual because of an uncommon number of non-at-large teams that won automatic bids over likely at-large teams, reducing the number of spots available for bubble dwellers. That happened Sunday in the Big East, Missouri Valley, Conference USA, Big 12 and Big Ten.

So if we struggled this much over a projection that didn’t really mean anything, imagine how difficult the job was for the Division I Baseball Committee, whose decisions would impact the fates of real-life student-athletes and coaches. Ultimately, the committee did a solid job putting together the field under these circumstances, even though we disagreed with a few of its decisions.

We started Sunday night with 75 teams on the board for 64 spots, and eventually we whittled that list down to six teams for three spots — UConn, Old Dominion, Gonzaga, Texas A&M, St. John’s and Maryland. We concluded that all six were deserving regional teams, and in a normal year with an average-sized bubble, all six would get in. It was painful to pick just three, but we lined them up in the order you see above, from strongest to weakest — so Gonzaga was our final team in and Texas A&M was our first team out.

The committee wound up omitting our last three in (UConn, Old Dominion and Gonzaga) in favor of our first three out (A&M, St. John’s and Maryland). And we don’t have any huge objection to that — as we said, all six of them are worthy. But we thought Connecticut was a fairly easy call to get in based on its 14-10 record in the No. 4 RPI conference, its No. 38 RPI as a Northern team and its respectable 17-18 record against the top 50 (which blows away Maryland’s 10-11 mark, for instance). And Old Dominion finished in second place in the No. 6 Conference USA, which managed to get just two bids, while the seventh-ranked Big Ten got five. But the strength of the AAC did not help UConn with the committee, according to committee chairman Scott Sidwell, the athletics director at San Francisco.

“Based upon the criteria that we have in front of us, what RPI a conference is is not part of our established criteria,” he said. “We try to look at their individual resumes and stack them up against other teams. As we went through the process, we just didn’t think they had a strong enough resume based upon some others we considered.”

When I pressed Sidwell about specific teams like Gonzaga and UConn, I did not receive any satisfying explanations for their omissions — just generalities like you see above. That was disappointing.

Maryland getting in as the fifth team in the Big Ten (the seventh-rated RPI conference) was a bit of a surprise, considering the Terps lost their final four weekend series and were just 10-11 against the top 100. Even St. John’s, with its No. 204 top strength of schedule, wound up with more top 100 wins (11-5). And Gonzaga, an extremely geographically isolated West Coast team, had more top 100 wins than both of them — and more than Texas A&M (16-19). It’s so difficult for a team in Eastern Washington to win more top 100 games than a team in the SEC, and Gonzaga also won the regular-season title in the West Coast Conference, a solid league that ranked 11th in the RPI. We figured those strengths, plus a No. 49 RPI (which is solid for a West Coast bubble team), would get the Bulldogs in despite its 1-4 record against the top 50. That’s still the same number of top 50 wins as St. John’s (1-0), and Gonzaga had a lot more top 100 wins and also managed to win its regular-season title, while the Johnnies finished percentage points behind Creighton in the Big East, with a much worse strength of schedule and nonconference SOS. St. John’s was 204th in SOS and 258th in NSOS; Gonzaga was 106th and 108th, respectively.

But St. John’s evidently got the nod for its superior RPI (No. 36) and its gaudy 42-11 overall record, compared with Gonzaga’s 33-20 and UConn’s 33-25. The Huskies, however, were just two spots behind the Johnnies in the RPI at No. 38, and they had a No. 51 SOS and a No. 131 NSOS.

Sidwell said the committee considered the geographic disadvantages St. John’s faces, but evidently Gonzaga did not get the same benefit.

“Gonzaga was considered in the last group of teams, discussed and vetted right until the very end,” Sidwell said. “As we looked at the nonconference schedule and the different things that they did, we just didn’t feel like they were worthy versus some others that we had up on the board.”

It’s disappointing to see nonconference SOS cited as a reason Gonzaga was left out considering its NSOS was so much better than that of St. John’s and Texas A&M. Sidwell did say the regional advisory committee rated St. John’s as the No. 1 team in the East region, which is no surprise. That endorsement seemed to carry a lot of weight with the committee.

And then there’s Old Dominion, which finished second in the No. 6 RPI Conference USA. The main black mark against ODU is its No. 50 RPI, but it made up for that blemish with an 8-7 record against the top 50 and more wins against the top 25 (4-4), top 50 (8-7) and top 100 (18-13) than these other bubble contenders. We are surprised that combination — second place in C-USA (19-11) and all those good wins — wasn’t enough to get the Monarchs into a regional.

Texas A&M’s main selling point was its 16-14 record in the SEC, but it had a losing record against the top 25 (5-11), top 50 (10-16) and top 100 (16-20). Factor in its ugly No. 217 nonconference SOS and the fact that it lost eight of its last 10 games, and we thought the Aggies were less deserving than UConn, Old Dominion and Gonzaga. In the past, the committee chairman has cited momentum — or lack thereof — to justify a team’s inclusion or omission. Given the inclusions of A&M and Maryland (losers of four straight series to finish the year), plus Clemson as a host after losing 11 of its last 12 ACC games, it appears momentum was not as big a factor this year.

“When you take a look at the body of work, you take a look at the schedules inside of that, who those teams played, what made up that momentum or lack of momentum, I think certainly in some cases you don’t have a choice in how your conference schedule lays out at the end of the year, so you play who you play,” Sidwell said. “If you end up playing a team that’s a national seed at the end of the year and you lose two out of three or you get swept, why does that weigh more than teams that played that team early in the year? So yes, that does have a factor … to say that it’s the factor in any particular case, it’s hard because there are many things we evaluate.”

So those are our quibbles with the bubble selections. None of the committee’s choices were egregious, and that’s a good thing — reasonable minds can differ on these choices, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow for the Huskies, Monarchs or Zags.

The fact that Gonzaga wasn’t even listed as one of the first four teams out of the field is also troubling — the official first four out were Miami, UConn Old Dominion and South Carolina. Sidwell said Gonzaga was on the board until the very end, but ultimately it wasn’t in those last four teams listed. The Hurricanes and Gamecocks absolutely should not have been higher on the pecking order than Gonzaga. The committee simply whiffed on the Zags, which is surprising considering the committee chairman, Sidwell, works at a WCC school.

We were also surprised to see Auburn, Michigan and UCLA listed as three of the last four teams in, along with Texas A&M. The Tigers, Wolverines and Bruins should have been comfortably ahead of Maryland and St. John’s. It’s tough to figure out what the committee was thinking here.

• Our biggest objection to the field of 64 is the choice of Clemson as a host over Virginia. The Cavaliers finished a game ahead of the Tigers in the ACC (18-12 vs. 17-13). The Cavs won their final six series, while the Tigers lost 11 of their last 12 ACC games. The teams split their four meetings this season, with Clemson taking the weekend series but Virginia pounding the Tigers in the ACC tournament when both teams knew they were playing for a regional hosting spot. Clemson had a minor advantage in the RPI (No. 12 vs. No. 16), but a No. 16 RPI should not disqualify the Cavs from hosting. Records against key RPI tiers are close; Virginia has the top 25 edge (6-7 vs. 5-11); Clemson has one more top 50 win but a worse winning percentage (10-14 vs. 9-8); and Clemson has 21-18 record against the top 100 compared with UVa.’s 18-11. There’s no clear edge for either team in those numbers.

The biggest weakness on Virginia’s resume is its No. 238 nonconerence SOS, and we have a feeling that cost it with the committee — but it shouldn’t have. Virginia was the much better team over the last six weeks of the season; Clemon’s late tailspin should have torpedoed its hosting chances. But that nonconference SOS killed Virginia, even though a similarly poor NSOS didn’t hurt Texas A&M or St. John’s.

“(The gap between Clemson and Virginia was) very, very razor-thin, and significant amount of discussion about this particular regional host award,” Sidwell said. “I think ultimately as we looked at all of it, there were arguments on both sides. One thing that stood out to us was the nonconference strength of schedule for Virginia was significantly higher than it was for Clemson.”

That NSOS is undeniably a blemish for Virginia, but it still shouldn’t have mattered more than Virginia’s much better performance over the last six weeks.

With all of those critiques in mind, I give the committee a B-minus.

Kendall Rogers’ Take

• As fully expected, the committee did an excellent job of picking the national seeds. In our final projection on Sunday night, we had Oregon State, North Carolina, Texas Tech, Louisville, Florida, LSU, TCU and Stanford as our national seeds. We picked all weight right, and that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Cardinal was one of the hottest teams in college baseball the last two months of the season, finished with a stellar Pac-12 record and had impressive metrics, including a 7-4 record vs. RPI Top 50 and a whopping 26 wins vs. RPI Top 100. Clearly, we have zero qualms with Stanford being the final national seed. Kudos to the committee for getting this one right. Kentucky also had a strong case to be a national seed with a boat load of Top 50 wins and a strong RPI, while Southern Miss fell just short after losing the Conference USA tournament title game. We mentioned Arkansas in our stock report on Sunday morning, but the fact it lost the SEC tournament title game to LSU took the Hogs off the board for us.

“We just kind of looked at all the teams, and Stanford was the choice,” Sidwell said. “We also looked at Southern Miss and Kentucky. It was close, but we just put them on the board.”

• Just a few weeks ago, it looked like we could be in a situation where perennial powers Rice, Arizona State, Florida State and Miami could miss the NCAA postseason. Arizona State has no shot to make the postseason, Rice won the conference tournament to earn the automatic bid, FSU went on a ferocious run the past two weeks and Miami, which had an amazing 44-straight-year run to the NCAA postseason, didn’t have its name called. The Hurricanes were an interesting case. Miami finished the season with an RPI of 41, played well in the ACC tournament and also had a solid 16-13 ACC mark in the regular season. However, some other metrics were not in Miami’s favor. For instance, the Hurricanes had a losing record (9-13) on the road, while also being 7-16 vs. RPI Top 50 and 20-23 vs. RPI Top 100. Those metrics were just too hard to overcome after the ‘Canes did little in non-conference to bolster their resume, getting swept on the road by Florida, while also losing two of three at home to Dartmouth.

• Speaking of big name programs missing the postseason, how about Ole Miss and South Carolina? If you listened to our NerdCast at the beginning of the week, we were pretty steadfast on the fact that Ole Miss needed to win a few games in Hoover to punch its ticket to the postseason. The Rebels didn’t do that, and as expected, they suffered the brunt from it. The Rebels finished regular season play with a solid 37 RPI, but also were two games under .500 (14-16) in the league. The Rebs did earn series wins over Arkansas and Texas A&M, a bubble team, the final weekend of the regular season, but that simply wasn’t enough. Ole Miss was 11-20 vs. RPI Top 50 and 16-21 vs. RPI Top 100. South Carolina was very much a long shot entering Selection Monday despite winning three games in the SEC tournament. The Gamecocks lost eight-straight series in conference and simply did nothing the second half of the season to justify a spot in the postseason. Those close to the Gamecocks will point to injuries as to reasons why they struggled at times, but you could use that excuse for several teams around the country, many whom actually made the postseason field.

“Texas A&M had a favorable RAC (ranking from the regional advisory committee), and you have to look at where it finished in the league,” Sidwell said. “They had a good conference record, and when you start looking at those things, the pros and cons, that’s what you get. There are a number of different factors.”

• Houston earned a host site with the way it played the past couple of weeks, earning an American Conference regular season and tournament title. But, the committee did the Cougars no favors from a matchup standpoint. The Cougars have a very tough Iowa team as a No. 4 seed, and Cougar Field sets up perfectly for a big-time slugger like Iowa’s Jake Adams. Baylor is a team familiar with the Cougars having taken two of three from them in Waco earlier this season, while Texas A&M, despite being a weak three-seed, essentially will have somewhat of a home and favorable crowd in Houston. It would’ve made a lot of sense for the committee to send the Aggies packing to the West Coast, while inserting the red-hot Texas Longhorns into the Houston Regional as a strong two seed.

• Speaking of A&M, there are several potential surprise three-seeds out there. In addition to the Aggies, Maryland has a history of winning regionals and could stack up favorably against Wake Forest and West Virginia, while Dallas Baptist is a tough three in Fort Worth, NC State is playing well at the right time going into the Lexington Regional, UCLA is certainly dangerous with Griffin Canning and others leading the pitching staff, Sam Houston State and Arizona team up to give Lubbock a pair of strong non one-seeds, Auburn could scare Florida State with Casey Mize if it can win its first game against UCF and Rice, if you remember, gave LSU all it could handle in last year’s Baton Rouge Regional. Well, the Owls are headed back to the bayou.

• How about the potential super regional matchup between Mississippi State and LSU? The Bulldogs have an incredibly tough road to travel with Southern Miss, UIC and South Alabama in the Hattiesburg, but if they can win it? The Bulldogs and Tigers now have what can best be called a coaching rivalry between Andy Cannizaro and Paul Mainieri. Throw in the fact that you have two of the more storied programs in college baseball, and you can go ahead and sign me up. But first things first and the Golden Eagles aren’t about to let down their guard at Pete Taylor Park this weekend.

• I think I’ve said this before on previous podcasts, but the mid-major conferences (at least the perceived mid-major conferences) seldom get the benefit of the doubt in committee proceedings. That much was evident again on Monday as the American Conference, ranked No. 4 in conference RPI, got the three obvious teams (Houston, UCF and USF) in the field, but did not get Connecticut into the field. The Huskies, which had an RPI of 38 and finished just one game out of first place in the regular season, should’ve made the field. There’s also Conference USA. C-USA finished the year No. 6 in conference RPI and only got two bids to the postseason in Southern Miss and Rice. FAU, Charlotte and Louisiana Tech not making the field weren’t surprises, but Old Dominion not making the field indeed was a surprise. The Monarchs did very well in a strong conference and collected three very good series wins — West Virginia, Southern Miss (on the road) and Rice (swept the Owls). Those are loud statements on a postseason resume.

• One of the more interesting things I learned from talking to Sidwell was how much the committee valued non-conference scheduling in some instances, but not so much in others. For instance, Sidwell pointed to Virginia not hosting and pointed out UVa.’s non-conference SOS, which sits at 238. Interestingly enough, though, two teams that made the field — St. John’s and Texas A&M — had NSOS’s of 258 and 217, respectively. Clearly, non-conference schedules mattered when it comes to host sites, but didn’t matter as much when it comes to at-large bids. Sidwell mentioned that St. John’s won a high quantity of games, while the Aggies fared well in the SEC.

• Another interesting nugget I picked up from Sidwell pertained to the different criteria the committee looks at. In the past, some committees have mentioned that they didn’t look at series wins, but merely took every game as an individual piece. Well, Sidwell said actual weekend series are an important part of the selection process, but certainly one of many important parts. Given that, it’s interesting that Old Dominion was left out of the field with series wins over West Virginia, Rice and Southern Miss (on the road).

• My grade for the committee? I’d give them an B+. Nailed all the national seeds, got all but one regional host right, and you had strong arguments for the bubble teams that reached the postseason.

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