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April 30, 2009

Wait 'Til Next Year

North-South Parity

by Bryan Smith

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It was snowing in Chicago in early February, and it was snowing outside my doorstep in April. At the same time, where Tony Gwynn was practicing his team in San Diego, where Kevin O'Sullivan was working his Florida Gators, and where Wayne Graham was coaching his Rice Owls, it was sunny. When the NCAA opted to enact a uniform start date, it wasn't geared toward the programs in California, Florida, and Texas-though some have argued that it had an impact on them-instead, the hope was that Northern programs would begin to tighten the parity gap that had existed in college baseball for decades.

Last season, discounting schools in Kentucky, Missouri, and Kansas that I frankly don't know whether to classify as North or South, seven schools finished in the NCAA RPI top 64. Fresno State is the clear poster child of the group, taking over the throne previously held by two-time national champion Oregon State, who finished 54th in RPI. Michigan was ranked highest at 36th, and the four other schools with high marks were Washington State, Louisville, St. John's, and Boston College.

It will be years before we begin to see the impact that the uniform start date has on college baseball, largely because these schools were only able to begin using this as a recruiting tool two years ago, and it would be a stretch to expect them to already be reaping the benefits. However, I can't ignore that the north currently has 11 schools in the top 64 in RPI, a tangible increase that hints at an intriguing trend. In the interest of giving recognition to these programs that have always been seen more as football or basketball schools, I want to run down the schools in line for bids to the upcoming NCAA tournament, in order of their current RPI (borrowed from Boyd Nation at boydsworld.com):

22. Minnesota:
Currently a half-game behind the other two Big 10 schools on this list, the Golden Gophers are the highest-ranked northern team. This is, without question, a result of some big victories, as they beat West Virginia, Santa Barbara, and Hawaii in recent weekend invitationals, while the 11th-ranked TCU Horned Frogs fell in a weekend series to Minnesota in mid-March. The Gophers have succeeded without the best play from outfielder Eric Decker thanks to Derek McCallum's 12 home runs and Tom Buske's dominance atop the rotation, and with three easy weekends coming up, the Gophers should be headed to the tournament.

28. Ohio State:
The Buckeyes made a statement when they came out and swept the Big East/ Big Ten Challenge to begin the season, and they made more of a statement when they beat Miami in Coral Gables on March 24. In Big 10 play, this team is 11-4, with only one series loss (on the road against Minnesota). It's been the deep offense and a top-heavy pitching staff that has done most of the work, led by ace Alex Wimmers (7-1, 3.14 ERA, 89 K in 71 2/3 IP) and closer Jake Hale (10 saves, 1.03 ERA, 46 K in 35 IP).

38. Rhode Island:
After inauspiciously losing two of three in the season-opening NC State Summit Hospitality Invitational, URI rebounded with six straight wins, including victories over Miami and Ohio State. The team split with Oklahoma State the next weekend, and since then, they've yet to lose a weekend series. The team wins with stolen bases and strikeouts, and they're personified by ace Eric Smith, who beat Miami to come out of his shell on March 3.

40. Boston College:
Scouts have been following this team and watching Tony Sanchez, the Golden Eagles' backstop with first-round potential. He has never disappointed, batting .359/.455/.695 in 43 games while showing good defense behind the plate, but Sanchez would be loath to overshadow his own team, which beat Florida State on the road in early March, and then beat Rhode Island 10-0 on April 7. Still, they're not guaranteed a spot in the NCAA Tournament, which would change if they could take a home weekend series from either Miami or UNC down the stretch.

46. Washington State:
The Cougars currently stand at 21-18, which, if nothing else, tells you that they are getting hot since their 5-11 start. That first month contained a lot of "good losses," as WSU scheduled Arkansas (0-3), Oklahoma (2-2), Gonzaga (1-0), Rice (0-1), and Pepperdine (0-2). On conference weekends, the team has only lost on the road to Arizona State, and their resume should get stronger, with three of the final four weekend series at home. In a bad season for the Pac-10, Washington State is slowly emerging as the conference's second team.

47. Illinois:
On the back of series wins over Louisiana State (on the road, no less) and Minnesota, it would seem impossible to leave the Illini out of the NCAA Tournament. Conversely, this is a team that dropped a weekend series to Central Connecticut State during the same week that they lost a game to Army. Still atop the Big 10, Illinois would put itself in a good position for an at-large bid if they can beat Ohio State at home in two weeks, where they have amassed a 13-4 record. The Illini get on base at a .401 clip, which has helped them to outscore their opponents by 55 runs on the season.

50. Eastern Illinois:
This is the lowest the Panthers have seen their RPI in weeks, which was inevitable as the conference games began to erode their strength of schedule. A weekend series loss to Jacksonville State didn't help, but if the committee investigates, they'll notice that EIU was without star Brett Nommensen. The Panthers have been dominant when they've been healthy, outscoring their opponents by 179 runs on the back of a .365/.437/.599 offense. The RPI probably isn't going up, so EIU must win, including the Ohio Valley Conference tournament in mid-May.

52. Oregon State:
The Beavers have hit 14 home runs this season. In their national championship season in 2006, star Cole Gillespie hit 13 on his own. This team would have been in much better position had they not lost to UCLA last weekend, or to Missouri State in Portland in March. The big wins just aren't there for this team, so taking a game from Arizona State this weekend, and a series from Washington State in mid May, is essential. If nothing else, the team must be pleased by the performances they've received from draft-eligible veterans Jorge Reyes and Ryan Ortiz.

53. Louisville:
The Cardinals' veteran squad faced some big pre-season expectations, though those quickly dissipated after a season-opening sweep at Florida. Like Oregon State, the last weekend did little to help this team, as Louisville lost a series to Notre Dame (and A.J. Pollack) at home. The Cardinals are a real threat to win the Big East Tournament, however, as teams will have a hard time beating the power threat of Phil Wunderlich (.360/.442/.652) and top prospect Chris Dominguez (.355/.456/.651).

61. Gonzaga:
There's just not a lot of room for error with small schools like this one, so when you lose on the road to Portland University (RPI: 191), a season's worth of good performances take a huge RPI hit. The Bulldogs have a lot of good wins this season-a two-game sweep of Missouri, a win over Notre Dame, a sweep of Pacific, and series wins over Pepperdine and San Diego. I actually think Gonzaga should grab an at-large bid to the tournament, as long as they can take care of business at home against Saint Mary's and Loyola Marymount over the next two weekends.

64. Kent State:
It's certainly hard to blame Baseball America for putting Kent State into their pre-season top 25, but if you had told me the team would hit .322/.407/.489, I would have ranked them in mine as well. Of course, I would have depended on a better team ERA than 4.83, and especially better performances from pro prospects Kyle Smith (5.14) and Brad Stillings (5.16). However, the team is still in control in the MAC conference, with a league-leading 13-4 record, and leading in the overall standings by 10 wins.

As I've outlined, it's difficult to predict how many of these teams will find their way into the NCAA Tournament, but I believe it's possible for nine, and perhaps even 10, of the northern teams to find their way into the final 64. Eventually southern coaches won't be able to deny the advantage that a uniform start date has had for parity in the national landscape, even if it is still snowing in April.

---

We end again today with a revised NCAA Top 25. While Texas, Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Baylor all suffered series losses last week, the 11-20 range was flawless. I'm more confident than ever that we have the second tier correct-just less confident about the gray line that separates the first pack from the second.

Baseball Prospectus NCAA Top 25, April 30, 2009

 1. Rice
 2. North Carolina 
 3. Louisiana State
 4. Texas
 5. UC Irvine
 6. Cal State Fullerton
 7. Arizona State
 8. Oklahoma
 9. Georgia
10. Georgia Tech
11. Miami
12. Arkansas
13. Texas Christian
14. Cal Poly
15. Mississippi
16. Baylor
17. Florida
18. Virginia
19. Florida State
20. Alabama
21. Texas A&M
22. Hawaii
23. Kansas State
24. Ohio State
25. Clemson

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

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