Examining the college baseball “bubble” with one week to go

This will be a huge week in the college baseball world, obviously, with conference tournament action all over the country (along with some key regular season games in the Pac-10, which does not have a league tournament).  I decided to break down the potential field and see what teams are in, what teams are out, and what teams have work to do.  Admittedly, I’m not the only person who does this — you can read fine efforts from the folks at Baseball America and Yahoo! Sports, just to name two — but I’m the only person who will do it on this blog.  So there.

I’m going to approach this from the point of view of a fan of a “bubble” team who wants to know the ideal scenario by which his team can make the field, by the way.  The Citadel, while not a true “lock”, is probably safe at this point (and well it should be). However, I would like to see any potential roadblocks to the NCAAs removed.  In other words, I’m for the chalk.

RPI numbers mentioned below are as of May 23 and are from Boyd Nation’s website.  For the uninitiated, the regionals include 64 teams, 30 automatic qualifiers (by winning their respective league bids) and 34 at-large selections.  Three leagues do not hold post-season tournaments, so their regular season champs get the auto bid. Several smaller conferences have already held their post-season events and so we know what teams will be representing those leagues.

There are 15 leagues that will definitely only have one team in the field, the so-called “one-bid leagues”.  Dartmouth, Bethune-Cookman, Bucknell, and San Diego have already qualified from four of these conferences.  The other eleven leagues are the America East, Atlantic 10, CAA, Horizon, MAAC, MAC, NEC, OVC, SWAC, Summit, and WAC.  That leaves 49 spots for the other 15 leagues.

(There are also a few independents, along with the members of the Great West, a league that does not get an automatic bid, but none of those teams are serious candidates to make a regional.)

There are several leagues that will also be “one-bid” conferences, unless the regular season champion doesn’t win the conference tournament, and even then the favorite might not be good enough to get an at-large bid anyway.  Bubble teams should definitely be rooting for the top seed in these leagues, just to make sure no spots are “stolen”.  These leagues are as follows:

– Atlantic Sun – Florida Gulf Coast University dominated this conference.  With an RPI of 40, FGCU probably stands a decent (not great) shot at getting a bid even if it loses in the A-Sun tourney.  This is unfamiliar ground for the Eagles, as the A-Sun tourney will be their first post-season experience in Division I.

If you’re wondering why you have never heard of Florida Gulf Coast University, it’s because the school (located in Fort Myers) has only existed since 1997.  The baseball team has only been around since 2003, first as a D-2 program and now at D-1.  It’s an amazing story, really; there are a few more details to be found here.  It just goes to show you how many good baseball players there are in Florida, and for that matter how many young people there are in Florida (FGCU has an enrollment of over 11,000).

– Big 10 – Michigan has an RPI of 65, which isn’t really that great, and didn’t even win the regular season title (Minnesota, with a losing overall record, did).  It’s barely possible the selection committee will throw a bone to the all-powerful Big 10 and give a “snow bid” to a second team from the league, but I doubt it.   Incidentally, the Big 10 tournament will be held in Columbus, but Ohio State did not qualify for the event.

– Big South – Coastal Carolina will almost certainly be a national seed.  If the Chanticleers win the league tourney, the Big South is probably a one-bid league. Liberty has an RPI of 51 and has beaten no one of consequence.  Bubble teams should definitely root for CCU.

– Conference USA – Rice will be in the tournament.  The only other team with a shot at a potential at-large bid is Southern Mississippi, but with an RPI of 67, it’s likely the Eagles need to win the C-USA tourney.  Otherwise, it could be bad news for the Minnesota Vikings.

– Missouri Valley – Wichita State will be the top seed at the MVC tourney, tying for the regular season title with Illinois State but holding the tiebreaker.  If the Shockers (RPI of 56) don’t win the league tournament, they could get an at-large bid, but I don’t see it. Still, you have to watch out, given the tradition of Wichita State, that the committee doesn’t give a “legacy” bid.

– Southland – There are three teams (Texas State, Southeastern Louisiana, and Northwestern State) that are semi-viable at-large candidates, but I suspect all of them really need the auto bid.  Texas State won the regular season title, has an RPI of 50, and probably would be the one best positioned for an at-large spot, but I don’t think that would happen. Bubble teams should pull for Texas State anyway, just to make sure.  Southeastern Louisiana has an RPI of 48 but dropped all three games of its final regular season series to Northwestern State, at home, and thus finished third in the league.

Let’s look at the remaining “mid-majors”:

– Big East – Louisville should be a national seed.  Connecticut has had a great year and may wind up hosting (but as a 2 seed).  Pittsburgh doesn’t have a great RPI (53), but has a fine overall record, will get the benefit of the doubt for its power rating because it is a northern school, and is probably in good shape.  The Big East appears to be a three-bid league.  St. John’s has a good record but an RPI of 74.

– Big West – Cal State Fullerton will host and could be a national seed.  UC Irvine should also make it out of this league (which does not have a post-season tournament).  I don’t see anyone else getting in.  It’s a two-bid league.

– Mountain West – TCU will probably host a regional.  I think New Mexico (RPI of 42) is getting in, too, although an 0-2 MWC tourney could make the Lobos a little nervous.  The MWC should get two bids.

– Southern – The Citadel (RPI of 37) won the regular season by two full games, winning its last seven league games (and its last eight games overall).  It was the only school in the SoCon to not lose a home conference series, and went 8-4 against the schools that finished 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th in the league, with all of those games being played on the road.

What The Citadel was not good at was winning on Tuesday.  It was 0-7 on Tuesdays until winning at Winthrop in its final Tuesday matchup.  On days other than Tuesday, the Bulldogs were 37-13.

Regionals are not played on Tuesdays.  The selection committee is aware of this, and probably aware that The Citadel has a top-flight starting pitcher (potential first-round pick Asher Wojciechowski) and a very good Saturday starter (6’7″ left-hander Matt Talley) who pitch on Fridays and Saturdays.

That’s a lot of verbiage to say that, even if the Bulldogs go 0-2 in the SoCon tourney, I expect them to be in the NCAAs. They better be.

The College of Charleston should be in the NCAAs too, with an excellent record and RPI (24).  The only other team with a shot at an at-large bid out of the SoCon is Elon (RPI of 43), which tied for third in the league (but is the 4 seed in the conference tourney).  The Phoenix had a better record against the ACC (6-1) than in the SoCon (19-11).  The SoCon should get at least two bids, and possibly three.

– Sun Belt – Florida Atlantic and Louisiana-Lafayette will be in the NCAAs.  Then there is Western Kentucky, with an RPI of 36 and some nice non-conference wins (Texas A&M, Texas State, Baylor, Vanderbilt, Kentucky).  However, the Hilltoppers finished 16-14 in league play, tied for sixth, and will be the 8 seed at the Sun Belt tournament. Can an 8 seed out of the Sun Belt get an at-large bid?  I’m not sure about that.

That leaves the four leagues that will send the most teams.  The easiest of these to evaluate, in terms of at-large possibilities, is the SEC.  The other three are a bit more difficult to figure out.

– Southeastern – Alabama’s sweep of Tennessee in Knoxville locked up a berth in the SEC tourney (and the regionals) for the Tide and also knocked the Vols out of both events.  LSU took care of business against Mississippi State, and then got the benefit of Kentucky’s meltdown against cellar-dweller Georgia.  The Wildcats were eliminated from the SEC tourney (and likely the NCAAs) after a 20-0 loss in Athens on Friday night.  Ouch.  The SEC, which some were suggesting could send ten teams to the NCAAs, will send eight — the same eight teams playing in the league tournament.

– Atlantic Coast – Six teams are locks (Virginia, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State, Miami, Virginia Tech).  Then there are the other two teams in the league tournament (Boston College and NC State) and one that isn’t (North Carolina).

I think it’s possible that two of those three get in, but not all three.  North Carolina didn’t even make the ACC tourney, but has a really good RPI (21) and just finished a sweep of Virginia Tech.  The Heels actually tied for 8th with BC, but the two teams did not meet during the regular season, and BC wound up prevailing in a tiebreaker, which was based on record against the top teams.  That’s also UNC’s biggest problem — it was swept by all three of the ACC heavyweights (Virginia, Georgia Tech, Miami).  It also lost a series to Duke, which is never a good idea.

On the other hand, UNC did beat NC State two out of three games (in Chapel Hill). The Wolfpack has an RPI of 49, not quite in UNC’s range, thanks to a strength of schedule of only 77 (per Warren Nolan).  By comparison, UNC has a SOS of 15 and BC 16, typical of most ACC teams (Miami has the #1 SOS in the nation; UVA is 9th, Clemson 11th).

The records for the two schools against the top 50 in the RPI are similar.  Both are better than Boston College (8-20 against the top 50).  BC, which is only 29-26 overall and has an RPI of 45, would be a marginal at-large candidate but for its quality schedule and, of course, its sweep of NC State in Raleigh.

What NC State does have to offer for its consideration is series wins against UVA and Georgia Tech.  That’s impressive, but it’s probably not enough to get the Pack an at-large berth on its own.

I suspect that UNC will get in, despite not making the ACC tournament, but it will be close.  BC and NC State both need to do some damage in the ACC tourney, which is a pool play event, meaning each team will play at least three games. The Eagles and Wolfpack each need to win at least twice.  UNC fans need to root against both of them, because even though at-large bids (supposedly) aren’t doled out by conference, a run to the ACC title game by either BC or NCSU probably would move them ahead of the Heels in the at-large pecking order.

– Big XII – Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas A&M are locks.  Kansas State (RPI of 35) is on the bubble but is in good shape.  Baylor (RPI of 41), Texas Tech (RPI of 54, and now with a .500 overall record), and Kansas (RPI of 52) are also in the running for an at-large bid, although the latter two schools hurt themselves over the weekend and are in now in serious trouble.  Both must have good runs in the Big XII tourney (which, like the ACC tournament, is a pool play event).

Baylor, Kansas, and Kansas State are all in the same “pod” for the Big XII tournament, so they may be able to separate themselves from each other (in a manner of speaking) during the tourney.  How that will affect the total number of bids for the Big XII is hard to say.  It wasn’t a banner year for the league, but I could see as many as six bids.  I think, barring some upsets in the league tournament, it’s going to be five.

– Pac-10 – Arizona State, UCLA, Washington State, and Oregon are locks.  Arizona (RPI of 19) probably is too, although the Wildcats would do well not to get swept next weekend at Oregon State.

There are nine teams in the conference still fighting to make the NCAAs.  In this league, there is only one punching bag — Southern California.  Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Washington has the worst RPI of the contenders (55) and is only one game over .500 overall.  The Huskies play Southern Cal in their final series, which will probably help Washington’s record but may not help its NCAA case.  Oregon State, as mentioned, hosts Arizona and may need to win twice.  The Beavers (with a solid RPI of 32) did get a much-needed win on Sunday at Arizona State to improve their conference record to 10-14.

Stanford (RPI of 44) looks to be in good shape; the Cardinal host Arizona State next weekend and likely need to win just one of the three games (and may be able to withstand a sweep).  On the other side of the bay, however, things are not as promising, as California (RPI of 39) has lost seven straight and finishes the season at Oregon needing to show the selection committee a reason to believe.

At least seven teams from the Pac-10 are going to make the NCAAs, and possibly eight.  I don’t think all nine contenders are going to get the call, though.

Okay, now let’s break things down.  Just my opinion, of course.  Here we go:

– Locks (30):  Louisville, Connecticut, Virginia, Georgia Tech, Miami, Clemson, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Coastal Carolina, Cal State Fullerton, Rice, TCU, Arizona State, UCLA, Washington State, Oregon, Florida, South Carolina, Auburn, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Mississippi, Alabama, LSU, College of Charleston, Florida Atlantic, Louisiana-Lafayette

– Champions from “one-bid” leagues:  15

– Champions from leagues likely to get just one bid, but that do have bubble teams (but no locks):  4 (the leagues in question are the A-Sun, Big 10, MVC, and Southland)

– Bubble teams that are in good shape (6):  Arizona, Kansas State, UC Irvine, New Mexico, The Citadel, Pittsburgh

That’s 55 teams in total.  If there are no upsets (hah!), then nine other bubble teams will make the NCAAs.  I’ve got them listed in two groups; the “decent chance” group, and the “need some help and/or no conference tourney upsets for an at-large” group.

Decent chance for an at-large:  Stanford, North Carolina, Baylor, FGCU (if needed), Oregon State, Elon, NC State

Need a lot of things to go right:  Boston College, Liberty, Wichita State, Western Kentucky, Michigan, Texas Tech, Kansas, California, Washington, Texas State, Southeastern Louisiana, Northwestern State, Southern Mississippi, Kentucky, Tennessee, St. John’s

That’s how I see things, as of Sunday night.  Most of the action this week begins on Wednesday.  Let the games begin…

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