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Kyle Datres (Photo by Carl Kline)[/caption]
The 2016 NCAA tournament field
broke several precedents—yet there was little surprise at any of them.
The 64-team field is a bonanza for college baseball’s two most powerful conferences, the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern. The ACC tied the all-time record with 10 teams selected for the field, while the SEC broke the record for most regional hosts out of one conference with seven—the ACC also had six itself, the two leagues accounting for 13 of the 16 regional sites. All season, the top of the RPI has been chock full of ACC and SEC teams, those two conferences accounting the top 11 teams in the RPI on Selection Monday.
At the other end of the spectrum, no regionals will be hosted west of Texas for the first time since 1994. No West Coast teams finished higher than 21st in the RPI (Arizona), and the committee stuck very close to the RPI in selecting its hosts—15 of the 16 are from the top 16 in the RPI, the lone exception being No. 17 Virginia getting one over No. 12 Coastal Carolina. In the past, committee might’ve shoehorned in West Coast regional or two in the name of geographic balance and saving on travel costs—always a part of its directive. One of the options could’ve been to ship a No. 1 seed out West, where a team like Arizona, Arizona State or Cal State Fullerton could’ve hosted as a No. 2, but the committee chose not to go in that direction. Right or wrong (depending on how you feel about the RPI), it determined to stick to awarding hosts on the merits of the teams’ accomplishments, above all.
“Headed into Sunday, as we’re grinding through the teams and grinding through what the at-larges were, I think it’s fair to say it became apparent that the fairest thing to do was to not (make a 1-seed travel West),” said selection committee chairman Joel Erdmann, who is also South Alabama’s athletic director. “There were teams that had, through their performance and their resume this season, justified their case to let them play at home. ... Ultimately, I think it’s fair to say the committee would’ve had a hard time taking the earned privilege of hosting away from somebody to balance things out regionally.”
Two teams the RPI didn’t work for were Coastal Carolina and North Carolina, the highest team to not host and the highest to be left out of the field, respectively. Coastal was able to build the No. 12 RPI as the regular-season and tournament champion of the Big South conference, seemingly giving it host-worthy credentials—not to mention an impressive second-year ballpark to show off. However, Coastal’s 3-7 mark against the RPI top 25 was a significant issue for the committee, and Erdmann specifically pointed to Coastal’s getting swept by Georgia Tech in a weekend series late in the year as a red flag.
Then there’s UNC, a lightning rod for fans and observers and, as it turned out, the committee itself. The Tar Heels’ No. 19 RPI makes them the highest team ever left out of the tournament, and they had other metrics seemingly in their favor, with 14 top 50 wins and a 20-18 top 100 record. Their 13-17 record in the ACC was a problem, but the real takeaway from UNC’s omission was to be reminded that, while numbers tell a lot of the story, they don’t tell the whole story. There is a subjective, human element to the selection process—largely manifested in the input the committee receives from its “regional advisory committees,” made up of coaches from around the country. Erdmann referred to these as the selection committee’s eyes and ears, and they were not kind to the Tar Heels.
“I think it’s fair to say that their particular (RPI) situation was unique,” Erdmann said, “and was a consistent topic of discussion. ... But when you really break down their field of work, their resume, they struggled a bit within in the conference. The input from the regional advisory committee had them ranked them low within the region. When you’re looking at a team such as them that is up for consideration in that unique situation, you’re trying to find reasons to pull them in. But, for example, they did not necessarily perform well against the best teams in the league. When you step back, even though the RPI is what it is, and the quantitative side points to them, the other influences and the other factors nudged them away.”
UNC’s omission is understandable, as the Tar Heels lost four of their last five series and failed to qualify for the ACC tournament, even if the RPI makes it stand out. Oregon State was the only other team that would seem to have a legitimate beef with the committee after sweeping UCLA on the final weekend of the regular season to finish with the No. 44 RPI and 18-15 against Pac-12 opponents, but Erdmann again indicated the feedback from the regional advisory committee wasn’t convincing enough to get the Beavers in without better metrics. Both UNC and OSU, as the first two teams left out of the field, were also victims of bid-thieving from Utah and William & Mary.
The only other issue with the field was the recurrence of repetitive super regional matchups. Potential Texas A&M-Texas Christian and Florida-Florida State matchups would both be repeats of super regionals from last year, and Clemson-South Carolina and Louisville-Vanderbilt are also pairings that’ve seen each other in the NCAAs in recent history. As usually comes up in with this topic, the idea was raised about whether the committee has considered seeding the top teams 1-16, as is done in NCAA softball, instead of just 1-8. And as usual, it was shot down.
The committee does try to avoid having teams play more than two years in a row, but it likes the flexibility the 1-8 seeding creates, allowing it to save on travel—of course—and avoid intra-conference super regionals. There were two same-conference super regionals in this year’s softball tournament, for comparison’s sake.
“Part of the directive and the criteria for the creating of the brackets is to limit travel as reasonably as possible and to keep teams within a region,” Erdmann said. “That is a criterion of our process and our system ... The committee’s aware of it (the desire to avoid repetitive supers), and I think we manage it the best we that we can within the procedures that we currently have.”