Regional Reaction: Striving For Consistency

Analysis


The field is set. For some teams, jubilation. For others, frustration and sadness.

We all know the drill. Seeing your program displayed on the bracket can be a culmination of a dream for many programs. For others, it is expected. This season just getting into the field was an accomplishment of sorts considering how many automatic qualifiers crashed the party.

There were a few points that stood out this year.

Losing conference records hurt. Only Texas (11-12) received an at large bid with a sub .500 conference mark. Bubble teams Ole Miss (14-16) and South Carolina (13-17) missed out.

Forty wins was a magic number as all 23 teams with that many wins saw their seasons continue.

A poor overall record hurt Miami (30-27), which was left out of the field and also pushed UCLA (30-25), the third-place Pac 12 team onto the list of the last teams included in the field.

Conference RPI was described as not being part of the selection criteria. That remark coincided with a reminder that teams are being evaluated without a link to their league affiliation. Granted, there is nuance here but conference RPI can be overstated.

Perhaps, program prestige and branding can help as Auburn, Texas A&M, UCLA, Maryland and Michigan were some of the last teams in while Connecticut, Old Dominion and Gonzaga were some of the first teams out.

There were six automated qualifiers (AQs) that came from teams not in the at-large pool. This made the committee’s job more challenging compared to years where there are fewer occurrences.

“Each year has a unique set of circumstances,” NCAA Selection Committee Chair Scott Sidwell, the Athletic Director at San Francisco said. “The committee’s task is to analyze the data with a broad look at what is happening. Throughout the weekend as we saw things unfold, there were a significant number of AQs from leagues for teams that would not have received at large consideration. Certainly the field narrowed and with that made this a very difficult process.”

The six stolen bids this season – defined as automatic bids given to teams from multiple bid leagues that would not have been in the field otherwise – shrank the bubble and squeezed teams out that there normally would have been have room for.

They were Oklahoma State, Iowa, Rice, Xavier, Sam Houston State and Dallas Baptist. Had none of those teams pulled conference tournament upsets, the field could have room for teams like Miami, South Carolina, Connecticut, Old Dominion, Gonzaga and Ole Miss. There were three other potential bid stealers that were avoided as Houston beat East Carolina in the American final and South Alabama won an epic game over Georgia Southern in the Sun Belt – although there is no guarantee the Jaguars would have received an at large bid. The other was Florida Gulf Coast was also a bubble team that won the automatic bid from the Atlantic Sun and ended up a two-seed.

“It was quite a challenging process for us,” said Sidwell. “As we start looking at the at-large pool that is available as you see teams coming off the board. We try to stay consistent with the process and criteria to make sure we follow those in a way that is consistent.”

Consistency was a challenge with so many factors to consider. For some, overall record and RPI carry the most weight. Others look at records against RPI tiers (25/50/100) and others factor metrics like strength of schedule and non-conference RPI. Often overlooked because of the lack of transparency are the evaluations from the Regional Advisory Committees (RAC). They are made up of coaches who rank the teams in a given area – sort of an eye test to balance the metrics. This is where the art (and often the frustration) in the process begins as the selection committee has to decide how to weigh the different attributes as part of the whole resume.

“The process is set up where there are three Regional Advisory Committee calls,” Sidwell said. “They are set up in advance of this weekend to select the field. There are three national calls and part of that process is to review the reports from the regional advisory calls. The conferences select the representatives to the RAC.

“The process starts broad and you start to narrow. We were going to let things play out. We paused to see what was happening in the conference tournaments. As the pool changed with the number of AQ’s – I think we had six AQs from teams not in the at-large pool – we had to adjust as those were happening.”

The field had nine auto qualifiers as #3 seeds which limited the spots typically reserved for bubble teams – the other #3 seeds – to just seven spots. Those seven, Auburn, North Carolina State, Michigan, UCLA, Maryland, St. John’s and Texas A&M kept their seasons alive. That meant there was no room for the teams listed above plus McNeese State, Coastal Carolina, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana Tech and Florida Atlantic that all had Omaha visions.

Old Dominion was left out with its second place 18-12 CUSA mark, an 8-7 record versus the top 50 and impressive 18-13 record versus the top 100. The RPI rank at 50 likely hurt their case.

Connecticut was left out despite having a #38 RPI – impressive for a school in the Northeast. It tied for third in the American and went 17-18 versus the top 100, 5-9 versus the top 50 and a 50 overall strength of schedule. They were apparently rated behind St. John’s by the RAC and were not aided by the American’s ascension to the fourth rated RPI conference.

“RPI conference strength is not part of our criteria,” Sidwell explained. “We look at the individual teams and they just didn’t have a strong enough resume.”

St. John’s earned an at large berth despite playing just one top 50 RPI team and had a strength of schedule of 204 overall and 258 in non-conference. However, they went 42-11 overall and 10-5 versus the RPI top 100. The Red Storm also drew rave reviews from the regional advisory committee.

“You look at opportunities they did have, they went on the road and beat North Carolina,” said Sidwell. “They beat Coastal Carolina in the top 100. As you look down at the opportunities they had to go on the road, they did make some attempt to do that. They did win a significant number of games. They were a 40+ win team and this year every team that won over 40 games got into the tournament.

“Our regional advisory committee that felt they were clearly the number one team in the East. They inherently by region have some scheduling challenges but we didn’t hold that against them.”

Gonzaga was left out despite having more top 100 wins than Texas A&M. They tied for the WCC conference title. They were just 1-4 versus the top 50 and had a #49 RPI – although considering their geography one would expect some latitude.

“They were in the last group considered right to the very end,” said Sidwell. “We looked at the non-conference schedule and felt they were not as worthy as some others on the board.”

That likely will frustrate the Zags when they hear that answer considering Gonzaga (56) had a better non-conference strength of schedule ranks than bubble teams Auburn (115), Michigan (166), Texas A&M (200) and St. John’s (255) despite their own inherit scheduling challenges. If that is the metric that hurt them most, they have to be wondering why them and not others?

That said, it is just one metric out of many. The question for many comes down to what do you value? Is it the best team? Is it the more deserving? Gonzaga had a conference title but lacked the impressive wins that a team like A&M had (won series at LSU). However, how do you view a team like Texas A&M that struggled late to lose eight of their last 10 games.

“When you look at the momentum or lack of momentum, you look deeper to see what made it up,” said Sidwell. “You don’t control your conference schedules so you play who you play. If you end up playing a national seed at the end of the year and you lose two out of three or you get swept, why is that weighed more than someone who did the same thing earlier in the year? But momentum does have a factor when pointing to Stanford winning 21 of 23, a really hot team. For some teams it mattered and others it didn’t. To say it is the most important factor is hard to say, because we weigh so many factors.”

South Carolina was a team that made the SEC semi-final who many felt might sneak into the field. Instead, their lack of SEC series success was their downfall.

“As we look at body of work for any team, one of the things that stood out to us for South Carolina is that they didn’t win series – they were two and eight in their conference series,” said Sidwell. “Also their overall body of work we didn’t feel was worthy of an at large.”

Miami was not able to overcome a poor start that had it 5-11 at one time. Even though they finished ahead of a host team (Florida State) in the ACC standings at 16-13, the Hurricanes were the rare team with a good, power conference mark that went unrewarded.

“Miami has some metrics that were very good,” said Sidwell. “At the end of the day, they had 30 Division 1 wins and ultimately just didn’t stack up at the end of the day.”

The Hurricanes were one of several teams that were burned by the rash of upsets in conference tournaments. That led to even more teams being chopped than is typically the case.

“We had a very broad group of good teams were vetted thoroughly, looked at, scrubbed and placed up against each other,” said Sidwell. “What we try to do is remember that is not necessarily about what conference you are in it is about your team and how do they stack up against others.”

Speaking of conferences, the SEC led all conferences with eight bids. Auburn and Texas A&M were their bubble teams that received invitations. Each had winning conference records. Ole Miss and South Carolina were left out. Each finished under .500 in SEC play.

The top RPI conference Big 12 received seven bids – especially impressive considering they only have nine baseball members. Their lot was helped as Oklahoma State won the conference tournament to receive an automatic bid. The conference had no bubble teams.

The ACC also had seven bids but missed out on an eighth as Miami saw their streak of 44 consecutive regionals snapped. The ACC also had five host sites, more than any other conference. The SEC had four hosts, the Pac 12 and Big 12 were the only other leagues with more than one. The Big West, American and Conference USA each had one host.

The American had a banner year finishing as the fourth rated conference. Houston hosted and both UCF and USF made the field as two seeds. However, Connecticut was left out of the field despite tying for third in the regular season.

The Pac 12 had the number one overall seed in Oregon State, another national seed in Stanford and a pair of other teams in the field in Arizona and UCLA.

Conference USA likely feels they have a legitimate gripe today. Regular season champion Southern Miss received a host and tournament champion Rice extended their consecutive regional streak to 23 years with the automatic bid. However, regular season runner-up Old Dominion had strong RPI tier metrics to go with their second place finish and was left home. Louisiana Tech was another bubble team that had their case falter with a quick tournament exit and the rash of upsets nationally.

One could argue no conference was treated as favorably as the Big 10. The league received five regional bids, the fourth most of any league, despite being the seventh rated RPI conference. Both Michigan and Maryland were bubble teams that made it into the field even though upstart Iowa won the conference’s automatic bid. Often those surprise tournament winners seems to penalize teams from the same league but not in this instance.

The Big West (8th), Big East (9th), Southland (12th) and Missouri Valley (17th) were also two bid leagues. The Southland got two bids and neither went to regular season champion McNeese State.

The hosts followed a similar script to last year where the lowest RPI selected was #17. Only #16 Virginia was omitted. Houston won the American regular season (co-champs) and the conference tournament.

The national seeds went according to expectations (and mostly down the RPI line) with Oregon State, North Carolina. Florida, LSU, Texas Tech, TCU, Louisville and Stanford. The other hosts were Kentucky, Arkansas, Southern Miss, Long Beach State, Wake Forest, Houston, Florida State and Clemson.

Clemson received a host despite losing twelve of their last 18 games and 13 of their last 16 conference games. The Tigers got the nod over Virginia despite their final impression on the committee was a 10-2 loss to the Cavs on Friday.

“It was razor thin with significant amount of discussion,” said Sidwell. “There were arguments on both sides. Ultimately what stood out for us is the non-conference strength of schedule (235) was significantly higher than it was for Clemson (67).”

Florida State received a host despite finishing just 14-14 in the ACC, behind a 16-13 Miami team that did not even make the field. Two weeks ago, the Seminoles were 12-14 heading to Louisville and observers were worried whether they would even make the field. Six game later – all wins – they not only make the field but they host.

Using the RPI, the best marks to be left out were South Carolina (#32), Ole Miss (#37), Connecticut (#38), Miami (#41), McNeese State (#42), Louisiana Tech (#47), Gonzaga (#49) and Old Dominion (#50).

The worst RPI clubs to receive at large bids are UCLA (#52), Texas A&M (#46), Auburn (#45), Nebraska (#44) and Cal State Fullerton (#43).

“The RPI is one metric that is consistent for all,” said Sidwell. “It doesn’t mean it carries the most weight or the least weight. It is the one that everybody plays by. It is one of many tools in our tool box.”

The field is set. For some programs, they move on with dreams of Omaha. Others pack up and go their separate ways. For the rest of us, we grab our bracket and plot our own courses as we follow the field of 64 into June.

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