May 25, 2009

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A Closer Look at the Field of 64 (2:30 p.m.)

By Sean Ryan


New year, same old questions…


How does a team that doesn’t make its conference tournament make the NCAA tournament? Why take the ninth-place team over mid-majors that win their regular season titles and falter one week of the season. What more can the smaller schools do?


My first reaction is sadness for Rhode Island. The Rams lost their top spot in the Atlantic 10 late in the year and then lost in the conference tourney final. Second-best clearly was not good enough in the eyes of the NCAA committee.


Yet, here again, a power-conference team that finishes outside of its conference tourney makes the field. Oklahoma State is in – somewhat amazingly as most college baseball followers did not include the Cowboys in their projections. Its RPI was bolstered by the stability of the Big 12, which this year received a shot in the arm from the likes of Kansas State and Kansas. Give OSU some credit for playing a nice early-season schedule, and picking up wins against Cal State Fullerton, Oregon State, East Carolina and Arizona (2).


But don’t you have to feel for Rhode Island, which didn’t play its first home game until April 4? On one hand, it’s tough to single out the Cowboys as the reason the Rams didn’t make the field, but on the other, the committee, led by Big 12 deputy commissioner Tim Weiser, has opened the door by letting Oklahoma State in the party.


What’s tougher is that the teams in question actually played head to head.


URI went down to Stillwater for a tournament and split with Oklahoma State. In that same tourney, the Rams were pasted by Cal State Fullerton but also lost a one-run game to the Titans. In addition, Rhode Island won at Miami (Fla.) and also beat Ohio State on a neutral Florida field.


Rewarding Oklahoma State is a mistake. The Cowboys can play with anyone – at times. But they didn’t do jack in conference. And if they were better than Rhode Island, couldn’t they have at least swept the Rams in their home park? Did the Rams’ chances really rest on beating Oklahoma State twice in Stillwater early in the season, when URI likely hadn’t spent much practice time outside? Apparently so, unless Auburn was the fallback replacement for Rhode Island.


Other observations:


·        The Big 12 seemed to catch all the breaks. All three bubble teams – Kansas, Baylor and Oklahoma State – made the field. And Oklahoma slipped in to grab a national seed. It’s tough not to raise eyebrows at the aforementioned coincidence with the Big 12 deputy commissioner chairing the committee. Is this payback of sorts for the SEC sneaking nine teams into the tourney when Mississippi State AD Larry Templeton was the chair?

·        The ACC got hit hard. For starters, Florida State didn’t get the national seed many expected. Did the Seminoles lose that chance by losing to Virginia in the ACC tourney title game (when Oklahoma didn’t even reach its title game)?


Speaking of the Cavaliers, step right up to get your prize for winning the ACC tourney title: an all-expenses paid trip to Irvine, Calif., home of the UC Irvine Anteaters, who were one of the top two or three teams all season long. You may have heard of them. This makes two straight years going west for UVa, as it was in the Fullerton Regional in 2008. But wait, there’s more. As a bonus, you’ll get to see the first pick of the Major League Draft up close in personal. His name is Stephen Strasburg, and his 100 mph gas has helped him go 13-0 with a 1.24 ERA and 180 Ks in 102 innings. You may have heard of him. 


It’s almost as if the committee sent Virginia packing before Sunday’s ACC title game. We seriously thought the Cavaliers might be the top seed at the Greenville Regional, pushing East Carolina to a 2-seed. We also thought they had a shot at being sent to Louisville as the 1- or 2-seed. But to Irvine?  Let’s get this straight, Virginia and its RPI of 6, gets shipped across the country while South Carolina (RPI 24), Georgia (RPI 19) and Vanderbilt (RPI 34) stay somewhat close to home? Virginia, which probably barely missed hosting a region, is the strongest of the No. 2 seeds and didn’t get the benefit of being so.


·        Even though the ACC tourney doesn’t appear to mean squat for Virginia, the Big 12 tourney may have saved Baylor, which won two of three games. The Bears had lost 12 of 14 down the stretch before the conference tourney. So much for strong finishes meaning much. San Diego’s RPI wasn’t as solid as Baylor; its slow finish, which included eight losses in 10 (five by one run, including two one-runners to national seed Arizona State), couldn’t save it from the chopping block.


·        Dallas Baptist was left out despite a RPI of 36. The Patriots played a lot of great teams but didn’t have much to show for it. But they did pummel Baylor 16-3. In Waco. We guessed correctly that DBU would be left out, but Baylor’s inclusion won’t make it easier.


·        One of our toughest calls was Southern Miss, which finished fifth in the regular season (like San Diego) and had a few good wins. We hedged largely because of the RPI of 57. Two wins against Tulane in the C-USA tourney helped the cause. Of note, Southern Miss got in ahead of Dallas Baptist (36), San Diego (48), Rhode Island (53), Southeastern Louisiana (54), Notre Dame (55) and Western Carolina (56).


·        Eastern Illinois (RPI 63) and Missouri State (RPI 68) get shut out despite great seasons. Ultimately, the RPIs were a little too low. But the message they – and the majority of the mid majors received again – is that you have to win your conference tourney to have a shot to play with the top eight from the Big 12 or SEC or top seven from the ACC.


·        Toughest regional: Irvine. We have to agree with the ESPN crew. UC Irvine got defending champ Fresno State, the ACC champ in Virginia and San Diego State, which has the nation’s best pitcher and several other stellar arms. How did that happen? The Anteaters cruised in the Big West and fellow Big West power Cal State Fullerton got a higher national seed, a bracket buster in Utah, Gonzaga out of the West Coast and Georgia Southern as the No. 2. Irvine gets Virginia, and Fullerton gets Georgia Southern?


Runners up: Tallahassee, Norman.


·        Easiest Regional: Tempe. Texas was treated pretty well, and so was LSU, but we’ll go with Arizona State getting Oral Roberts (RPI 39), first-timer Cal Poly (49) and Kent State (83). 


Runners up: Austin, Baton Rouge.