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Softball bracketology debut projections

4/30/2013

Congratulations to BYU, Portland State, Cornell and Mississippi Valley State for earning the first four spots in the NCAA tournament (actually, it's a belated congratulations to Mississippi Valley State, which clinched the SWAC automatic bid last week).

Now if we could just figure out the other 60 spots in the field.

Where do we stand entering a week of conference tournaments in most leagues and the end of regular-season series in the handful of leagues without conference tournaments?

Putting aside for a minute Cornell, Mississippi Valley State and Portland State, all likely representing one-bid leagues, there are 36 teams that look like NCAA tournament locks regardless what happens in games remaining before the bracket is released.

Locks: Alabama, Arizona, Arizona State, Baylor, BYU, California, Cal Poly, Cal State Fullerton, DePaul, Florida, Florida State, Fresno State, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisville, LSU, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, San Diego State, Stanford, Texas, Tennessee, Texas A&M, UCLA and Washington.

There are four more teams that, if not quite written in stone, appear to be resting in very nearly dry bracket cement should they need at-large bids.

Near-locks: Long Beach State, Nebraska, Purdue and UNLV.

So in this scenario, we've got 40 teams, representing 11 conferences, in good shape.

There are also 14 other conferences that seem likely to receive only their respective automatic bids, regardless of what happens this week. It's not a homogenous group; Hofstra or Georgia State would have at least an at-large case to make it out of the Colonial, as might Texas State from the Southland and a handful of others. But as things stand now, anything more than one bid is a reach for the following: America East, Big South, Horizon, Ivy League (Cornell), Horizon, MAAC, MAC, MEAC, Northeast, Patriot, PCSC (Portland State), Southern, Southland, SWAC (Mississippi Valley State).

Now it's time to reach for the Advil.

The above math leaves 10 spots remaining in the field of 64: six at-large bids and automatic bids in the Atlantic Sun, Conference USA, Missouri Valley and Ohio Valley.

Among the regular-season champions in those four conferences, Creighton might be in the best shape, even if it loses out on the automatic bid in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. Its RPI is only 56, but it won the league handily (with a .760 winning percentage to Southern Illinois' .682) and had wins out of conference against Arizona and Nebraska.

Jacksonville State is a healthy No. 30 in RPI, but its best wins out of Ohio Valley play were doubleheader sweeps against Mercer and Mississippi. It also dropped games the past two weekends (although it did finish with a 21-2 record in its last 23).

In Conference USA, East Carolina lost out on the regular-season title on the final weekend without playing a conference game. While the Pirates beat Campbell and split with Virginia Tech out of conference, Tulsa captured the title on percentage points with a sweep of Southern Miss (due to cancellations, Tulsa was 16-4 to East Carolina's 19-5).

In terms of at-large profiles, East Carolina took two of three from Tulsa earlier and beat Florida State out of conference (in addition to one-run losses against Michigan, North Carolina and Notre Dame, if you're looking for a bit of context on the Pirates). Tulsa closed with a 9-1 record in its past 10 games and a 13-2 record in its past 15 games. It also beat Oklahoma State (splitting two games) and Creighton out of conference.

Finally, the Atlantic Sun looks more and more like the leftover part from the piece of the furniture you thought was assembled, the part that looks suspiciously like it plays some rather important load-bearing role. Its four top-60 RPI teams are more than the Big West, Mountain West and WAC, all of which likely will get multiple NCAA tournament bids.

But the Atlantic Sun's strongest candidate on paper, Florida Gulf Coast, isn't eligible for the NCAA tournament as it continues the transition to Division I. And out of a group that includes regular-season champ Campbell, Lipscomb and Mercer, only Mercer has top-50 wins against a team other than Florida Gulf Coast: two against Auburn.

So back to those 10 remaining spots. Should all four above regular-season champs -- Creighton, Jacksonville State, Tulsa and Campbell -- double up and win conference tournaments and automatic bids, here's how the bubble would look in this projection:

Last Six In

1. Auburn: Just 4-16 in its past 20 but enough quality wins or a good enough RPI.

2. East Carolina: Top 50 RPI, two wins against Tulsa and one against Florida State.

3. Arkansas: Top 40 RPI, key April wins versus Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Tulsa.

4. Hawaii: 16-4 in its past 20 and wins versus Oklahoma, Ohio State, Fresno State, Nevada.

5. Oklahoma State: Just 3-9 versus Big 12's top six but beat Tulsa twice and Stanford.

6. Mississippi State: .500 overall, missed SEC tournament, but owns wins against Georgia, Tennessee (twice), Auburn, Purdue, Florida State and Hawaii.

First Six Out

1. South Florida

2. Texas State (regular-season Southland champion)

3. Southern Illinois

4. Hofstra (regular-season CAA champion)

5. Troy

6. UCSB

Obviously, as regular-season champions, Texas State and Hofstra remain favorites to clinch automatic bids in their respective conference tournaments.

And just to confuse things a little bit more, Louisiana-Lafayette and Massachusetts will be in the NCAA tournament regardless how they fare in conference tournaments. But since no other A-10 or Sun Belt teams are likely in the at-large mix, it means that should either not claim the automatic bid, it will take away an at-large spot from another team.