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May 21, 2009

Wait 'Til Next Year

Handicapping the Field

by Bryan Smith

The college game's postseason began in earnest across the nation last night, as conference tournaments kicked off their action from the Atlantic Ten to the Sun Belt, and from Honolulu to Trenton. With rainy season finally coming to a close in the north, it looks like we should have a clean weekend filled with baseball to carry us through to Selection Sunday. The road to the College World Series begins with regionals in one week, which will take us straight through to Omaha in June.

With the tournament so close, this means that college baseball fans have turned their focus to the bubble, as each of the next four days should help reveal much about who's in and who's out. I've been monitoring the action each of the last two weeks, but this will be the last column before the 64-team bracket is announced on Sunday. Today, we'll focus on what the teams on the bubble must do this weekend, and briefly, what the nation's top teams must do to secure the eight desirable national seeds. (A quick programming note: I'll be back with an Unfiltered on Sunday to try my hand at projecting the 64 teams and their seeds, and then on Memorial Day Monday, I'll be chatting about the tournament.)

First, I should remind you that last week I gave a list of 18 spots that are guaranteed in the tournament, as that number of conferences will receive one spot, and only that one automatic spot in the field of 64. We also increased the list of guaranteed at-large teams to 30 schools, repeated here:

  • ACC (6): Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami (FL), North Carolina, and Virginia
  • Big East (1): Louisville
  • Big Ten (1): Minnesota
  • Big XII (5): Kansas State, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas A&M
  • Big South (1): Coastal Carolina
  • Big West (3): Cal Poly, Cal State Fullerton, and UC Irvine
  • Conference USA (2): East Carolina and Rice
  • Ivy League (1): Dartmouth
  • MWC (1): Texas Christian
  • Pac-10 (1): Arizona State
  • SEC (7): Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana State, Mississippi, and South Carolina
  • SoCon (1): Elon

Nine more of those conferences could burst a bubble or two if a school that is not on the guaranteed at-large list wins their conference tournament; this impacts between nine and 18 spots that I deemed to be left available last week. What changed since then? A brief look at the schools that locked up their tournament resume in the last week.

  • As the nation's best independent school, it will be hard for the committee to turn down Dallas Baptist's 38-win season. The Patriots put the final bow on their campaign with a series win at Jacksonville, and should finish around 40 in the RPI. I expect them to get in as a three-seed, but if the committee keeps them in Texas, you know it will be a tough first two seeds in the regional.

  • With one more win in the Southern Conference Tournament, Georgia Southern will reach 40 wins on the season, and there's no way the conference overlooks them. This team finished the season by sweeping Wofford, and with a win over Davidson in the SoCon tourney's opening round, it's impossible to envision a scenario with them outside the tournament.

  • When Middle Tennessee State hosted Western Kentucky last weekend, a spot in the guaranteed at-large spot was due to the winner. Before Sunday's finale was spoiled due to field conditions, MTSU won the first two games of the tournament, and they will likely cross the 40-win plateau in the conference tournament. Expect a three seed for the Blue Raiders as the Sun Belt's best-ranked squad.

  • Last week, I said that Ohio State was the team on the bubble closest to the tournament, and a sweep of Iowa over the weekend was just the finishing touch the Buckeyes needed. While they're in that unfortunate range to potentially play the national number one as a two-seed, Ohio State fans can breath a little easier knowing that they are in the tournament.

  • The Mountain West Conference has just been too good this season to only get one bid, and I believe San Diego State's 9-1 record in their last 10 games, including a 2-0 start in the Mountain West Conference Tournament, should give Tony Gwynn's squad a spot in regionals. It might be as a three-seed, but college fans will be happy to know that Stephen Strasburg will have one more opportunity to lower his ERA.

  • Finally, joining Georgia Southern and Elon as the third Southern Conference team will be Western Carolina, who I'm putting through after their win over College of Charleston last night. That gives the team a five-game winning streak, will get them close to the top 40 in RPI, and with a record nearly unblemished with "bad losses," I can't see the Catamounts being turned down.

With six schools joining the ranks on the teams who should be in, that lowers the spots left to grab between three and 12. Of last week's bubble teams, I see Illinois, Hawaii, and College of Charleston all dropping from the bubble list, as each must win their conference tournament to now gain entrance into the postseason. However, in their place, I'd be mistaken not to be highlighting George Mason and Jacksonville, two teams that have worked their way up into bubble status. With 40 wins, George Mason might be at the top of the list; you can bet the bubble teams are really hoping that George Mason wins the CAA Tournament, so the conference only receives one bid. I still see Jacksonville on the outside looking in after a series loss to Dallas Baptist to finish their season, but they are an example of a program that might only need to reach their conference tournament's championship game, rather than win the tournament.

Of the other bubble teams listed last week, here are some thoughts on where I stand. First, I think that the Big XII, Pac-10, and SEC will each get one more team in the tournament. It's a battle between Kansas and Baylor in the Big 12, with the Jayhawks regular season final series win over Kansas State giving them the edge. It might just take a Bears run to the conference tourney final-they beat Texas in the opener yesterday-to push Kansas out of this tournament. The Jayhawks lost to Kansas State last night.

That the Pac-10 is only looking at two bids is just terrible, but I don't know what else they can expect. Washington State beat Oregon State in Corvallis last weekend, and assuming they take care of business against the in-state rival Washington Huskies this weekend, I think WSU will be the Pac-10's second and only hope. There's still a chance for the winner of the Stanford-Oregon State series, I guess, but it will have to be a sweep.

Mike Minor pitched a complete game to beat LSU in the SEC Tourney first round yesterday, and even though Vanderbilt finished their regular season by being swept at the hands of Tennessee, that win might get them into the tournament. Kentucky is still sitting in the background with their arms raised, as is Auburn after a series win over Alabama last weekend, but neither made the conference tournament. One more Commodore victory, and I'll feel comfortable saying yes to Vanderbilt and no to Auburn.

I still think Texas State is in the tournament, but because I don't think it's a lock I haven't put them in that category yet. A sweep of UT Arlington last weekend would have done it, but it's still hard to see the committee balking at a mid-major that finishes in the top 35 in RPI. If the three big conferences each have one more bid coming, score one for the little guys. However, the second seed in the Southland Conference, Southeastern Louisiana, probably spoiled their chance at an at-large bid with a series loss at Northwestern State to finish their regular season.

The Sun Belt is going to get another team into the tournament, but Western Kentucky and Troy didn't help their chances last weekend, with losses to Middle Tennessee State and South Alabama, respectively. Assuming there's more than four bubble spots left, put whichever team finishes deeper in the Sun Belt Tournament into the five-spot on your list.

If Eastern Illinois and Oral Roberts lose their conference tournaments, I really hope the committee finds them a way into the tournament. This holds especially true for EIU, who had a marvelous season, but watched helplessly as their RPI dropped each of the last four weekends. This is a team that has taken care of business all season long, and even if they drop a few balls in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament, I think the committee should give them a spot in.

National Seed Watch

While my focus has been on the bubble the past few weeks, I've completely ignored the top of the rankings. As an entryway back into that discussion, here's a look at the top 16 in RPI as of this morning (All RPI references in this article courtesy of the irreplaceable BoydsWorld.com):

  1. Cal State Fullerton
  2. North Carolina
  3. Texas
  4. Arizona State
  5. Georgia Tech
  6. Clemson
  7. Miami
  8. Florida
  9. Texas Christian
  10. Arkansas
  11. Rice
  12. Virginia
  13. Oklahoma
  14. Louisiana State
  15. Florida State
  16. Mississippi

Without question, the top five on that list are all locks for national seeds. If North Carolina wins the ACC Tournament, they become the favorite to land the top spot, with Fullerton waiting for a Tar Heel hiccup. At the sixth slot, it starts to get interesting, as Clemson's rocky start to the season diminishes its fantastic RPI. I think if the Tigers go deep in the conference tourney, they could land a national seed, but I have them settling as a mere regional host.

Texas Christian had a bad time in the Mountain West Conference tournament last night, so they'll really need to bounce back to win the tournament, and thereby lock up a national seed. Louisiana State had the same hiccup, losing to Vanderbilt and Mike Minor, and they may need to come all the way back with a plaguing RPI. Also count Rice among the teams that probably need to win their conference to get a national seed.

However, you know the SEC is going to get at least one national seed, and they very well might get two. Florida sits in the driver's seat right now, but I think the committee will be ready to award Arkansas and LSU depending on the weekend action. The one wild card is UC Irvine, as it stands at 17 in RPI, but has competed toe to toe with Fullerton all season.

As for likely hosts not in the top 16, I think ECU has much to gain in the Conference USA Tournament, with 42 wins and an RPI at 20. Louisville will host if they win the Big East Tournament, and given the committee's desire to expose different regions to college baseball, the Cardinals might get in anyway. Count Minnesota in that lot as well, as Northern teams always have a little advantage on Selection Sunday.

I'll leave it at that this week, with the promise to return to Unfiltered on Sunday for a national tournament projection.

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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