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April 9, 2009

Wait 'Til Next Year

A Possibly Sweet Top Sixteen

by Bryan Smith

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There is no All-Star break in college baseball, so the halfway point of the season isn't some in-season pause that everyone can see. It's been seven weekends since the season began, however, and we have seven more weeks to endure before we start arguing about the field of 64. For now, the best tool that we have to use as a measuring stick is Boyd Nation's simulation of the NCAA Ratings Power Index (RPI), which ranks by a formula using 25 percent win percentage, 50 percent opponents net win percentage, and 25 percent win percentage of opponents' opponents (along with a weighting for home and away games). When the committee hosts its conference call to explain their reasoning for specific choices within the field of 64, no numbers are cited more often than those of the RPI.

However, consider a team like the TCU Horned Frogs, who I've written about more than once this season. Despite series losses to Minnesota and San Diego State at home, Nation's RPI has the Horned Frogs ranked fourth in the country. This is a nice way of rewarding a team that went on the road and beat Cal State Fullerton to open the season, but it's no promise of the program's first hosted regional. Rather, their RPI is destined to drop, with series forthcoming against Texas-Pan American, Air Force, Utah, and UNLV. Given the disparity from conference to conference and the effect that this has on a team's RPI, it would be near-impossible for TCU to stay in the top ten for another six weeks.

This is why Nation offers yet another tool, the RPI Needs Report. In Boyd's words:

This report lists the record each team would need for the rest of their schedule to finish higher than the team currently in key RPI positions, those that correspond to the various seeding or at large thresholds (8, 16, 32, 45), assuming that all other teams maintain their current winning percentage.

This is the report that tells us that it's impossible for TCU to finish the season in the top eight, and that Hawaii-currently ranked eighth in RPI-would have to finish 26-0 to keep its ranking. In our attempts to forecast the tournament, there is no better tool.

By Nation's estimate, 52 schools still have an opportunity to be ranked in the RPI Top 16, which comes with a high likelihood of a number-one seed. However, 23 of those schools would need to finish with a near-perfect record in the next seven weeks-losing between zero and three games-to accomplish the feat. And while Louisiana State proved that it was possible just a year ago, I don't get the same vibe this year from Alabama, Florida State, Kansas State, or UC Santa Barbara. These schools belong more in an argument between second and third seeds than they do in the realm of who the future regional hosts might be.

While I believe that it's safe for us to drop those schools from the discussion, I do think there are 30 teams with an opportunity to be a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. Here's how I would group them, along with the win-loss record they'd need to finish in the top 16:

Virtual Locks: Arkansas (9-15), Cal State Fullerton (16-12), Georgia (14-11), Georgia Tech (13-13), Louisiana State (15-10), Miami (9-13), and North Carolina (10-13).

Things will have to dramatically change for these programs, each of which would have to win at least 10 games in their final 26 to avoid being eliminated. It won't be an easy road-only LSU and Fullerton have schedules remaining with an aggregate opponent's winning percentage below .600. So, if you want your two most likely national seeds, go with the Tigers and the Titans. The only good bet on the list to not end up as a national seed is Georgia Tech, who faces a remaining slew of difficult weekends, with Virginia and Florida State at home, and quietly dangerous Clemson and Duke teams on the road.

You'll notice the team with the lowest requisite win percentage in the group is the Arkansas Razorbacks, who could conceivably close out the SEC by playing .375 ball and still host a regional. However, a road series against Georgia, and home series against LSU and Ole Miss loom as the difference-makers between the top eight and the ninth through 16th spots. It's hard to envision the SEC not getting three national seeds again, though UC Irvine's series success against Fullerton last weekend began to poke holes through that argument.

Don't Bet Against: Arizona State (20-7), Baylor (14-7), Ole Miss (16-8), Rice (15-8), Texas (15-7), and UC Irvine (23-5).

This brings us up to 13 teams that are likely one-seeds, and all have the necessary facilities to host a regional. While Irvine has the steepest odds of the bunch here, the most difficult part of the Anteaters' schedule has been passed. I think it's possible that the team falls just short of the RPI Top 16, and still hosts a regional. This could happen to Texas as well; they have more fans in the polling industry than with the RPI. The teams closest to the "Virtual Locks" category were Arizona State and Rice, and in fact, here are my projected eight national seeds:

  1. Cal State Fullerton
  2. Louisiana State
  3. North Carolina
  4. Arizona State
  5. Arkansas
  6. Miami
  7. Rice
  8. Georgia

On the One-Seed Bubble: Coastal Carolina (21-3), Florida (17-8), Oklahoma (16-8), Oklahoma State (17-8), Texas A&M (16-7), Texas Christian (20-5), and Virginia (13-9).

We've already discussed TCU, but the Chanticleers are in the same boat-it's difficult to make their RPI go up from here. Still, this is a team that could legitimately win 20 of their last 24 games, and the committee has recognized small-conference teams that play difficult non-conference schedules. While I'm on the subject, Oklahoma is a team that is going to grow a lot of fans because of their schedule's difficulty. In Nation's Strength of Schedule rankings, the Sooners are the only non-West Coast team in the top 25. The question is: which conference is more likely to have four teams hosting regionals, the ACC (with Virginia) or the Big 12 (with the Cowboys/Aggies)? With that in mind, here are the eight other teams that I think have aligned themselves at this juncture to host regionals, in alphabetical order (seeing as they don't rank these):

Baylor, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Tech, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A&M, and UC Irvine.

The Two "Will They Really Put a Regional There?" Teams: Boston College (21-4) and Hawaii (20-6).

Two of the more under-the-radar programs in the season's first half, people should be paying special attention to Hawaii, one of the new additions to this week's BP Top 25. The Rainbows' schedule comes with a high degree of difficulty, and this season they're coupling that with big victories. The team has series wins over Mississippi State and Coastal Carolina, both of whom have outside top 16 potential. At first glance, neither the team's 717 OPS or 4.08 ERA would be particularly impressive, but this is a team catching the ball exceptionally well, and a team that doesn't give away many home runs or walks.

I'll just say I'm rooting for these teams to finish the season hot, if only because I wonder if the committee would dare put a regional in Massachusetts or Hawaii.

The RPI Likes You Better Than Me: Auburn (17-8), Clemson (16-9), Mississippi State (18-5), and South Carolina (18-7).

I should say that I do like Clemson, a team that opened the season in my top ten, but one that has failed to gain much traction. The one thing that all of these teams have in common is a large collection of "good losses," and it's hard to know how much weight the committee might give it. These just aren't regional host-caliber teams, but they are likely second and third seeds that could wreak havoc come tournament time.

The Long Shots: Cal Poly (23-4), Kentucky (19-5), and San Diego (16-5).

Combine mediocre facilities with mediocre first halves, and you've just given the committee a good excuse to leave you with a two seed. This would be the position that the Mustangs, Wildcats, and Torreros find themselves in, with very little hope of escaping that destiny.

In the year following Fresno State winning the national championship, I suppose it's mandatory to finish this article by reminding you of one thing: this is college baseball, so nothing that happens in the next two and a half months should surprise you.

Baseball Prospectus NCAA Top 25: April 9, 2009

 1. Louisiana State
 2. North Carolina
 3. Texas
 4. Rice
 5. Cal State Fullerton
 6. UC Irvine
 7. Georgia
 8. Miami
 9. Baylor
10. Arkansas
11. Georgia Tech
12. Arizona State
13. Oklahoma
14. Texas A&M
15. Texas Christian
16. Ole Miss
17. San Diego
18. Cal Poly
19. Oklahoma State
20. East Carolina
21. Coastal Carolina
22. San Diego State
23. Hawaii
24. Virginia
25. Oregon State

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bryan's other articles. You can contact Bryan by clicking here

Related Content:  Cal State Fullerton,  The Who,  Texas

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