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Thursday, May 26, 2005
Conference tourneys key for many bubble teams

By Will Kimmey
Baseball America

Teams sitting on the bubble of the college baseball tournament have only a few days left to make a convincing case for themselves. With NCAA tournament bids being announced Monday morning at 11:30 a.m. ET (ESPN2), the only thing that matters this week is who's in and who's out.

Twelve conferences — America East, Atlantic 10, Horizon, Ivy, Metro Atlantic Athletic, Mid-Continent, Mid-Eastern Athletic, Mountain West, Northeast, Ohio Valley, Patriot and Southwestern Athletic — will get only one bid apiece no matter who wins their respective conference tournaments. Another 34 teams stand as surefire NCAA bids based on the strength of their seasons thus far.

That accounts for 46 of the 64 bids, leaving 18 other spots in the field. We've narrowed things down to 30 teams that could still earn at-large bids and handicapped their chances. More than that number can still reach the field simply by winning their conference tournaments, but this look includes only teams in position to win at-large berths. Ratings Percentage Index references are approximations based on Internet models; the NCAA does not release the actual RPI until after the season.

Atlantic Coast
Already In: Georgia Tech, Clemson, Miami, Florida State, North Carolina, NC State
Still Possible: Virginia
Analysis: The Cavaliers (38-17, 14-14) have series wins against just two NCAA teams — UNC Wilmington and Georgia Tech — and they have an RPI in the low 30s. A .500 finish in the league (without two games against 7-19 Virginia Tech that were lost to weather) should be enough to push Virginia in, but it will breathe easier with a win or two at the ACC tournament.

Atlantic Sun
Already In: None
Still Possible: Troy, Florida Atlantic, Central Florida
Analysis: Troy (36-19, 23-7) won the league by four games over the other two clubs, but a weaker schedule puts its RPI about 20 spots worse than that of Central Florida (40-16, 19-11) and Florida Atlantic (33-20, 19-11), both in the low 40s. The league should earn two bids, with FAU holding an edge on UCF because it won a road series against the Golden Knights and holds a better RPI thanks to a more rigorous schedule. If it gets bounced from the tournament early, Troy could be boxed out of the NCAAs by strong tournament performances from Central Florida and Florida Atlantic.

Big 12
Already In: Nebraska, Baylor, Texas, Missouri
Still Possible: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State
Analysis: Oklahoma (33-22, 14-13) has won seven straight games and 10 of its last 12, making a strong run following coach Larry Cochell's resignation. A top-40 RPI and fifth-place conference finish should be enough for the Sooners to get in even if they suffer an 0-2 Big 12 tournament. Oklahoma State (33-23, 12-15) offers a similar record but has lost five of its last six games, including the OU series. A weak nonconference schedule has the Cowboys' RPI trending toward the 60s, so they'll need to advance deep into the tournament to secure an at-large bid. Their RPI is actually worse than that of Texas Tech, which finished 9-16 in the conference and won the series against OSU.

Big East
Already In: St. John's
Still Possible: None
Analysis: The Red Storm (39-14, 19-4) won the league by three games and have done enough to secure an at-large bid even without winning the tournament. St. John's could end up as a regional host as a two or three seed because it is one of the few deserving hosts in the Northeast. No other Big East member has the resume to become an at-large selection, though Boston College or Notre Dame could sneak in the back door with mid-70s RPIs if one finishes second to St. John's in the tournament.

Big South
Already In: Coastal Carolina, Winthrop
Still Possible: Birmingham-Southern
Analysis: Birmingham-Southern (36-19, 18-6) finished only one game behind Winthrop in the conference race, but it didn't play nearly as tough a nonconference schedule and owns an RPI in the 70s — double that of Winthrop. So the record looks better than the résumé. This league could be interesting if a team not named Coastal Carolina or Winthrop wins the tournament; both of those clubs deserve at-large bids, but would the committee place three Big South teams in the NCAA Tournament?

Big Ten
Already In: None
Still Possible: Illinois, Michigan
Analysis: Michigan's top 45 RPI normally would lock it into a spot, but that figure was built more with nonconference wins against North Carolina, Georgia and Florida Atlantic before it finished fourth in the conference. Michigan sits fourth in the league, but is even with champ Illinois in the loss column thanks to rainouts. It might not need to win the Big Ten tournament, but laying an egg would damage its at-large chances. Despite its regular season title, Illinois (33-21, 20-12) ranks nearly 30 RPI spots behind Michigan (40-15, 17-12), but the Illini figure to be next in line for an at-large bid. Michigan could hold the at-large edge over Illinois if neither wins the conference tournament because those 40 wins sure look good.

Big West
Already In: Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State
Still Possible: Cal Poly, UC Irvine
Analysis: There's no conference tournament to help teams here, but luckily the schedule makers have the final two teams meeting on the field. Poly (34-19, 12-6) visits Irvine (30-23, 9-9) this weekend in a series that should determine the third Big West bid. Irvine's overall record doesn't look as strong, but there's no contest in schedule strength. Poly's best nonconference series win came against fellow bubble team San Francisco, and it lost at home to Washington. Irvine beat California in a three-game series, won both games it played against Arizona at a neutral site and earned wins against Wichita State and USC at a March tournament. It also swept that same Washington team.

Colonial
Already In: UNC Wilmington
Still Possible: George Mason
Analysis: Mason (33-17, 15-9) finished six games behind Wilmington in conference play and did not record a single victory against likely NCAA Tournament teams. Its mid-70s RPI says advancing to the conference tournament final will be a requisite for an at-large berth, and that might not be enough for a league that normally earns two bids.

Conference USA
Already In: Tulane, TCU, Southern Mississippi
Still Possible: East Carolina, Houston, South Florida, Louisville
Analysis: East Carolina (34-22, 18-12) won its last seven conference series and finished with a top 40 RPI that positioned it to the good side of the bubble. Like Oklahoma, its strong finish means even a so-so conference tournament might not matter. Houston (27-28, 16-13) sits in much the same position it did last year, holding an RPI near the top 50 but needing a handful of tournament wins to push the overall record above .500. That will be a tough task considering it will need three or four wins to do so in a double-elimination format.

Louisville (32-22, 15-14) and South Florida (32-29, 15-14) look like postseason spectators. They have top-65 RPIs, but not enough consistency. South Florida owns a better RPI and won the season series, but Louisville won series against Tulane and Georgia. There could be an NCAA opportunity if either of these can reach the tournament's final day.

Mid-American
Already In: None
Still Possible: Miami (Ohio)
Analysis: The RedHawks (39-15, 17-4) didn't lose a series all year, and their road series wins against Alabama and Louisville have helped build a top-50 RPI. A decent tournament showing should be enough for Miami to earn an at-large bid.

Missouri Valley
Already In: None
Still Possible: Creighton, Wichita State
Analysis: Creighton (42-13, 17-7) won the regular season title over Wichita State (45-21, 16-8), though it lost the season series against the Shockers. Both are members of the 40-wins club, which should be enough to boost them into the NCAA Tournament. A third team winning the MVC tournament could put one of these two in a nervous spot as the league hasn't received more than two bids recently. Creighton owns two wins against Nebraska but still posted an RPI in the mid-50s.

Pac-10
Already In: Oregon State, Arizona, USC, Arizona State
Still Possible: California, Stanford, Washington
Analysis: Stanford (31-21, 11-10) owns an RPI that is 20 spots better than that of California (32-21, 11-10) or Washington (30-22, 9-12), but these teams are essentially even otherwise. Stanford beat Washington but lost to Cal in league play, while Washington beat Cal so there's a push.

The Pac-10 does not play a conference tournament, but the final weekend shapes up interestingly. If UW can sweep 4-12 UCLA this weekend while Cal loses two of three at Arizona and Stanford loses two of three at USV, all three of these bubblers will stand 12-12 overall. That scenario would stick Stanford with the fifth league bid because of its top-40 RPI and tradition. Series wins for Stanford and Cal would clinch bids for each.

Southeastern
Already In: Florida, Tennessee, LSU, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina
Still Possible: Mississippi State, Arkansas, Auburn, Vanderbilt, Georgia
Analysis: The SEC earned a record nine bids last year and could break that mark in 2005. There are all kinds of possibilities and arguments for including each of the five possible SEC clubs. Eleven teams could make the NCAA field based on schedule strength, quality wins and overall records, but that jump can happen only if all the favorites win their conference tournaments to free up more at-large bids.

One game separated seventh-place Mississippi State (36-20, 13-16) from 11th-place Georgia (30-25, 12-17) in the conference, and they might well be tied had weather not taken Mississippi State-Tennessee and Georgia-Kentucky matchups. That would put these two teams on par with Vanderbilt (34-21), Arkansas (37-18) and Auburn (32-24) at 13-17. That's messy, and sorting these clubs out will be as well.

Going strictly by RPI, the order falls like this: Auburn, Arkansas, Georgia, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State. South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Georgia won three of their final six conference series while Mississippi State and Arkansas won two of their final six conference series, but made the SEC tournament. Auburn won two of its last six, and built the best RPI of the group.

Even though Mississippi State seems to grade out as the fifth team in this group, its conference finish should help it nudge out Georgia for the 10th bid, which still sets a record.

Southern
Already In: College of Charleston
Still Possible: Georgia Southern
Analysis: Georgia Southern (35-20, 18-11) has compiled a top-50 RPI with wins against Florida Atlantic and College of Charleston and two against Georgia. This proved the last team into our 64-team field projection, and its actual NCAA Tournament fate for an at-large bid could rest on how many unexpected teams steal automatic bids in other conferences.

Southland
Already In: Northwestern State
Still Possible: None
Analysis: Northwestern State (40-16, 22-5) reached 40 wins and topped the conference by six games while playing a solid nonleague schedule that featured wins against Baylor, Mississippi, St. John's and Oklahoma. The Demons' 21-2 home record rates as the nation's best, and they will play host to the conference tournament. The club squeezes into the NCAA Tournament even if it slips this weekend.

Sun Belt
Already In: Louisiana-Lafayette
Still Possible: South Alabama, Florida International
Analysis: South Alabama (31-25, 15-9) and Florida International (37-19, 14-10) each won a game off Louisiana-Lafayette in losing season series, and USA holds the strength of schedule and season series edge on FIU if there's to be a second Sun Belt bid. The Jaguars' overall record isn't exiting, but they do own wins against potential NCAA teams Mississippi, Coastal Carolina, Auburn, Troy and Oral Roberts. FIU scored a series win against St. John's and single victories against Florida Atlantic and Harvard. The Golden Panthers will need to advance past South Alabama in the tournament to keep their slim NCAA hopes alive.

West Coast
Already In: Pepperdine
Still Possible: San Francisco
Analysis: San Francisco (38-18, 20-10) set a school record for wins this year, but that might not be enough considering its best series win of the year came against Loyola Marymount. It lost two series against Pepperdine, finishing one game behind it in the WCC's West Division, and also dropped a series to Cal Poly. That sticks it a little ways back in the pecking order, and an RPI near 60 won't help the cause.

Western Athletic
Already In: Rice
Still Possible: None
Analysis: The WAC will add a conference tournament in 2006, but there's not one this year. Rice (38-17, 18-9) wins the regular season title and automatic berth as long as it doesn't get swept at home by San Jose State while second-place Fresno State wins three games at Nevada. Even in that instance, the Owls earn an at-large bid.

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