May 25, 2009

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Long Rhode to Omaha

By Sean Ryan


Jim Foster and his Rhode Island Rams gathered today at the Ryan Center, the sparkling home of the URI basketball teams and athletic offices. A few friends and administrators were on hand to watch the NCAA college baseball tournament pairings announcement as the Rams expected to hear their names called.


Great expectations were replaced with a hard dose of reality.


Rhode Island was left at the altar, all dressed up with a 37-20 record and a RPI of 57 and no place to go.


“They took it good, as good as they could have,” said Foster about his team Monday afternoon. “They were heartbroken, they were very disappointed. It’s just unfortunate.”


As he watched the pairings, Foster got a sense of what was about to happen.


“When I saw Oklahoma State get in as a three seed, I knew we were in trouble,” Foster said.


One by one, at-large spots were being filled: George Mason, Kansas and Western Kentucky were on the right side of the bubble. Then, in the final Regional bracket, Baylor became the third Big 12 bubble team to get the call.


“For it to be taken away, it really is a crime,” Foster said.


Foster’s frustration was directed at the NCAA selection committee – chaired by Tim Weiser, a former athletic director at Kansas State and the deputy commissioner of the Big 12 – and not toward any one team, even though Oklahoma State’s inclusion was the selection that raised the most eyebrows. The Cowboys had a RPI of 25 and a record of 32-22, but they missed the Big 12 conference tourney with a ninth-place finish (9-16) and won two conference series all year.


Most years, there would be no real way to compare the Cowboys and Rams, but this year, Rhode Island traveled to Stillwater, Okla., to play four games against Oklahoma State and Cal State Fullerton – not a typical weekend road trip for a Northeast school. The result? The Rams and Cowboys split, OSU winning 14-2 and URI winning 5-4 in the fourth game of the tourney. In between, the Rams were pounded 17-3 by Cal State Fullerton and then lost 4-3 to the eventual No. 2 national seed.


“I’m just proud of the way my guys played,” he said. “I don’t want to jump on Oklahoma State either. They play in a great conference. But they only won two conference series. I hate to say it, but I think you have to do a little better than that.”


Before the trip to Stillwater, the Rams played a tourney at N.C. State and beat the Wolfpack. They went on a Florida trip where they beat Miami (Fla.) and Ohio State. They finished 19-6 in league play, just behind Dayton (21-6), and then lost in the final of the A-10 tourney. Rhode Island didn’t play at home until April 4, 26 games into the season.


“You couldn’t have done anything more than we did; we did what we had to do,” Foster said.


He talked about the challenges Northeast schools face when scheduling. And he talked about the fact that his program is doing less with more – Rhode Island has 2.6 baseball scholarships, far below the allowed maximum of 11.7.


“It’s not like we have the resources all these schools have,” Foster said. “We’re getting kids that love the game of baseball. They’re not the most highly recruited kids out of high school, but they’re damn good.”


And while he knows they had a chance to win the A-10 tourney (“We were set up to do it, but we didn’t do it…Xavier played great.”) and that the likes of Oklahoma State and Baylor “can make a damn good run,” Foster feels cheated by the system. He worked his schedule about two years in advance to replace weekend series with RPI-damaging Northeast schools with national powers. And to top things off, the Rams responded with some big wins.


Rhode Island woke up Monday on the brink of an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. It goes to bed – along with countless other mid-majors and Northern schools – wondering what else it could have done.


“It’s a terrible message,” Foster said of the news delivered by the NCAA committee.