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May 7, 2009

Wait 'Til Next Year

From 286 to 64

by Bryan Smith

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Don't worry, I'm not going to make an argument that it's as good as March Madness. For fans of college baseball, though, May and June allow for a degree of projection and anticipation similar to what the college basketball tournament offers us every March. With just two weeks of regular season and one week of conference tournament play to go, college baseball's postseason is right around the corner. For some teams, the year is essentially over, and for others, it's time to sleep until the May 29 regionals. For the rest, the next three weeks are of the utmost importance, and during that time, we'll do our best to narrow the field.

With a nod to Joe Sheehan (and his wonderful series at Basketball Prospectus), "You're not in until you're absolutely in. You're not out until you're absolutely out. So you'll see teams on the bubble, on both sides, that may not make all that much sense to you." Throughout the three weeks that I'll be running this series, the RPI numbers I cite will come from the indispensable BoydsWorld.com. Selection Sunday is just 17 days away, so this will be a rudimentary overview of where all 30 conferences stood entering play on Wednesday. The next installments will focus primarily on the bubble teams, and less so on one-bid leagues.

  • Atlantic Coast Conference
    In: North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Miami (FL), Florida State, and Virginia.
    Bubble: Clemson, Boston College, and Duke.
    Clemson has a top ten RPI, so it's hard to imagine they aren't in, but theirs has been a lackluster season. I like BC's case better than Duke's, though the Blue Devils have been a half-game better in the ACC standings, and won the head-to-head series. Duke's 140th-ranked strength of schedule is laughable, so they may need to win a series at Virginia or at home against Georgia Tech to close things out. I see BC only needing to finish the regular season 3-3.

  • America East
    Automatic bid only: Binghamton has been the best team during the season. The highest ranked in RPI is Stony Brook, and Albany and Maine are fair picks for the conference tournament as well.

  • Atlantic 10
    Automatic bid only: Rhode Island's RPI is slowly beginning its descent; they're at 54 now, and if they don't win the conference tournament, it will be hard for them to make a case. Their RPI looked good earlier in the season after beating highly regarded opponents Oklahoma State and NC State, but in retrospect, a mid-week win over Miami was their only impressive victory. It will be a big upset if Rhode Island doesn't take the automatic bid.

  • Atlantic Sun
    Automatic bid only: The top of the division, Florida Gulf Coast and Kennesaw State, aren't yet post-season eligible (they're only two years into Division I). This probably makes Jacksonville the favorite; the conference won't make much post-season noise until their two best teams can play in regionals.

  • Big Ten
    In: Minnesota.
    Bubble: Illinois and Ohio State.
    It's probably going to be a three-bid league, because according to Boyd Nation's needs report, the Illini need to finish a manageable 5-2 while the Buckeyes an easier 4-4 in order for both teams to finish in the top 45 in RPI. The Gophers could go 0-6 and still get an invite, so they seem the only safe team. I don't rule out Indiana's chance to win the conference tournament on the strength of a roster that's top-heavy in terms of talent, so the upcoming Buckeyes-Illini weekend series could determine which would be booted.

  • Big XII
    In: Texas, Kansas State, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma.
    Bubble: Missouri, Kansas, Baylor, and Oklahoma State.
    I can't imagine the Cowboys making an argument with just their one conference series win, and Baylor's disappointing season almost surely requires them to sweep at Nebraska (to return to .500 in conference play) and win in the conference tournament. The Missouri-Kansas series this weekend is huge for both programs, though the Jayhawks have a decent chance regardless. This should turn out to be a five- or six-bid conference.

  • Big East
    Bubble: Louisville.
    It might be an automatic bid-only conference, but the Cardinals have a chance to finish 6-2 and in the top 32 in RPI, which should get them in. Conference losses to Notre Dame and at Seton Hall don't help, so Louisville must beat conference leader South Florida in the regular-season finale.

  • Big South
    In: Coastal Carolina.
    For a 36-13 season, it's been a touch disappointing for the Chanticleers, with series losses to Hawaii, High Point, Winthrop, and College of Charleston. This team will still win 40 games, and they are a nice enough story to get a berth. Even if Liberty lands the automatic bid, CCU should still get in.

  • Big West
    In: Cal State Fullerton, UC Irvine, and Cal Poly.
    Bubble: UC Riverside and Long Beach State.
    About six weeks ago, this looked like a five-bid conference, with Riverside and UC Santa Barbara both off to good starts, but both have since fallen flat inside the Big West, with a combined 13-17 record. Riverside has a chance, but with 11 games remaining, they need to win at least eight. The Dirtbags only get in with a series win over UC Santa Barbara, and a 4-2 finish against Cal Poly and Fullerton. Good luck.

  • Colonial Athletic Association
    Automatic bid only: George Mason is running away with this. They currently sit at 49 in the RPI, but the only way they can assure an at-large bid would be to sweep James Madison in their final remaining series, and then fall in the CAA championship game.

  • Conference USA
    In: Rice and East Carolina.
    Bubble: Houston.
    The conference seems to be in rebuilding mode this year, and I'm not sure another team has a shot at the postseason. Tulane (66) and Southern Miss (68) will only see their RPI rankings regress with their lackluster remaining schedules. Houston only gets in if they finish the season 6-0, and that would include a sweep of ECU this weekend.

  • Horizon League
    Automatic bid only: If nothing else, it should be an exciting conference tournament. Illinois-Chicago has been the best team inside the group, but there is no club that's particularly strong.

  • Independents
    Bubble: Dallas Baptist.
    As the only independent that's close, DBU probably needs to win six or seven of their final 10 games to get into the tournament. Wins over TCU and Oral Roberts would help, but it really comes down to not stumbling in easy weekend series.

  • Ivy League
    In: Dartmouth.
    The first team in the NCAA Tournament, as Dartmouth won the conference tourney on May 3.

  • Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference
    Automatic bid only: Manhattan has ruled the league so far. Theirs is actually a good team, so I expect them to win the league, even over Canisius, who sports a better RPI (164).

  • Mid-American Conference
    Automatic bid only: Kent State now controls their own destiny. With 35 wins already, an at-large bid wouldn't be outlandish, but the Golden Eagles will have to fight to finish in the top 90 in RPI, much less the top 64. This is too talented of a team not to make it into the regional, so let's hope they win the conference tournament.

  • Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference
    Automatic bid only: It won't be close, as Bethune-Cookman has dominated the league. If we can root for anything, it's that Coppin State can find a way to win a game in the next two weeks-they are 0-29 at this juncture.

  • Missouri Valley Conference
    Automatic bid only: There is one possible exception in league-leader Creighton. If the Blue Jays finish their season 7-0, or even 6-1, with sweeps of Missouri State and Wichita State, do they really need a conference tourney win to get in? Meanwhile, Indiana State has been a nice upstart story, but I don't see them making it.

  • Mountain West Conference
    In: Texas Christian.
    Bubble: San Diego State, BYU, and New Mexico.
    While the Horned Frogs fight to host a regional, the other members of the top four need to close out the season without losing. San Diego State will likely get in; Strasburg helps as much as their resume does. New Mexico has seven road games, and might need to win them all, while BYU most assuredly must win their last five games.

  • Northeast Conference
    Automatic bid only: It's currently a fight for the NCAA Tournament slot. Central Connecticut State, Wagner, Sacred Heart, Monmouth, and Mount Saint Mary's are all within 1 games of one another. The winner will most definitely face a national seed.

  • Ohio Valley Conference
    Bubble: Eastern Illinois.
    There's a very, very good chance that the Panthers will win six more games, which would bring their season total to 40. With an RPI of 38, I'm not far from considering EIU a lock; the committee will love to reward a mid-major for such a dominant season. No guarantee comes with those 40 wins, however, and a series loss and an early conference tournament exit would not sit well with the committee. For now, they remain on the fence.

  • Pac-10 Conference
    In: Arizona State.
    Bubble: Oregon State, Washington State, UCLA, Stanford, and USC.
    This is the conference that is the most confused, and also the one without a conference tournament. Below is a table of the bubble teams, their remaining weekend opponents, and how Boyd Nation projects each must finish to land in the top 45 in RPI:

    
    School            W-L   Remaining Series
    Oregon State      6-5   @Wash, WSU, @Stan
    Washington State  8-1   Oregon, @OSU, Wash
    UCLA              8-3   Cal, Fullerton, @ASU
    Stanford         12-1   NM, @USC, OSU
    Southern Cal      9-1   @Northridge, Stan, Cal
    

    Oregon State is close to a lock with those numbers, and one of the final four should get in. UCLA needed the least wins, but has the toughest schedule. I also like Washington State to squeeze into the final spot.

  • Patriot League
    Automatic bid only: Army actually has a nice team this year. Though they don't pose a threat in the NCAA Tournament, they should get past Bucknell to make it there.

  • Southeastern Conference
    (We've done an article on this, but this updates the info found there.)
    In: LSU, Florida, Miss, Georgia, and Arkansas.
    Bubble: South Carolina, Alabama, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and Auburn.
    South Carolina became a near-lock with a weekend sweep of Vanderbilt, and Alabama probably did the same two months before. That's seven bids if we give the Gamecocks and Tide the benefit of the doubt. Will the committee give the conference eight? It's a possibility, and Vanderbilt has a chance if they finish 5-1.

  • Southern Conference
    In: Elon.
    Bubble: Georgia Southern, Western Carolina, and College of Charleston.
    Believe it or not, it seems that the RPI favors the SoCon to the Pac-10 this year, and it may be more likely to reward the conference with three bids. All three bubble teams have a shot at the top 45 in RPI if they can finish over .500, though Georgia Southern (30) sits in the driver's seat. Charleston would be helped if Coastal Carolina can close out the year well in the Big South, as the Cougars swept the season series.

  • Southland Conference
    Bubble: Texas State and Southeastern Louisiana.
    With 34 wins and 20 inside the Southland, I'm still not ready to give the Texas State Bobcats a guaranteed top 64 spot. However, two series wins against inferior teams will probably send them to the dance. Southeastern Louisiana, currently on a nine-game win streak, might have to extend that to 15 wins. One way or the other, I could see two bids coming from this conference.

  • Summit League
    Bubble: Oral Roberts.
    The Golden Eagles have dominated in conference play, but I have a feeling they might need the conference tourney win to make it to the postseason. They finish with 10 consecutive road games, and the RPI won't help them much more. Holding off a red-hot Centenary program in the Summit Tournament will be ORU's biggest challenge.

  • Sun Belt Conference
    Bubble: Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee State, and Troy.
    Now at 40 in the RPI with seven straight wins, the Hilltoppers are sitting pretty. There are two road series remaining, and winning both would probably get them in. I'm a little less confident in Middle Tennessee State and Troy; while they currently have RPIs in the top 64, they might need to win out to keep it that way.

  • Southwestern Athletic Conference
    Automatic bid only: It looks like a fight between three teams: Southern, Jackson State, and Mississippi Valley State. The latter has the best conference resume, but the two other schools are almost assuredly better. We'll see how this plays out.

  • Western Athletic Conference
    Bubble: Hawaii.
    The Rainbows have struggled of late, losing seven of their last 10 games. I just don't see the committee rewarding a team that finishes below .500 in the WAC, no matter how high the RPI (29). Hawaii's battle with Fresno State this weekend is huge. If they don't make it, the conference becomes automatic-bid only, with three teams trailing Nevada by a half-game. Defending champion Fresno State must win the conference tournament to return to the postseason.

  • West Coast Conference
    Bubble: Gonzaga, San Diego, and Loyola Marymount.
    I threw the latter in because they're hot, and with road series against Arizona and Gonzaga and a mid-week game against USC remaining, LMU could really boost their RPI. It will probably be a fight between the over-performing Bulldogs and the underperforming Torreros, and it's hard to imagine this conference getting two teams in 2009.

Accounting for all of the locks and the automatic bids, I see 44 spots in the tournament that are already sewn up. That leaves 42 bubble teams fighting for a total of 20 spots in the NCAA Tournament. If teams like Eastern Illinois and Oral Roberts follow through and win their conference tournaments, it should be 38 teams vying for 20 spots. That will become the focus next week as I continue this series.

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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