Notebook: Teams at mercy of RPI
Three months of laying off rise balls, beating tags and hitting the cutoff and your season comes down to math. It's kind of a bummer. But for teams looking for the perfect path to the Women's College World Series, or just hoping to make the field of 64 in order to keep playing softball, the audition process is almost over. Conference tournaments will settle most of the 32 automatic bids to the NCAA tournament. The rest of the picture, from at-large bids to national seeds, comes down to the selection committee.
So what might Sunday bring?
Here is what the NCAA championship manual says about a key part of the selection process:
"The RPI [Rating Percentage Index] is intended to be used as one of many valuable resources provided to the committee in the selection, seeding and bracketing process. It never should be considered anything but an additional evaluation tool. No computer program that is based on pure numbers can take into account subjective concepts (e.g., how well a team is playing down the stretch, what the loss or return of a top player means to a team or how emotional a specific conference game may be)."
As is often the case with mission statements, it sounds good. But history suggests calling the RPI one of many resources necessary for selection is like calling water one of many resources needed for swimming.
Let's start with the 16 national seeds. Since 2007, which is when available RPI data begin, teams ranked in the top 16 of the final pre-selection RPI accounted for 105 of 112 national seeds. Only once in that span did a team ranked No. 20 or lower in the RPI earn a national seed (Long Beach State in 2008). That could be a hurdle for the Big Ten this season, as co-champs Michigan (18) and Nebraska (19), as well as Minnesota (17), are all currently on the outside looking in.
There is some mobility within the seeds, but not as much as the caveat in the handbook might lead you to believe. A season ago, Arizona State was No. 11 in the pre-selection RPI but the No. 5 seed in the bracket. That is not the norm. Only four other times since 2007 has a team ranked No. 10 or lower ended up with one of the coveted top eight seeds (which come with the opportunity to host not just a regional but any potential super regional). That may be cause for alarm at Tennessee, which finished second in the SEC but is No. 13 in the most recent RPI.
It isn't just the seeds that bear a striking resemblance to the RPI. When Iowa was left out a season ago while ranked No. 34 in the RPI, it became the only eligible team (i.e., a winning record and not reclassifying to Division I) in the past seven years that didn't receive an at-large bid after entering the selection process in the top 40. That's encouraging news for teams like Lipscomb, Hofstra, UAB, Northwestern and Wisconsin at the moment.
So let's get to some projections.
National seeds: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Florida, No. 3 Oregon, No. 4 UCLA, No. 5 Georgia, No. 6 Missouri, No. 7 Tennessee, No. 8 Arizona State, No. 9 Louisiana-Lafayette, No. 10 Oklahoma, No. 11 Florida State, No. 12 Arizona, No. 13 Washington, No. 14 Kentucky, No. 15 Baylor, No. 16 Michigan.
Notes: Alabama's strength against RPI top-10 teams (7-4) pushes it past Florida, which is in much better shape at No. 1 in the RPI than in the human polls. ... On the strength of a 9-4 record against RPI top-25 teams, Tennessee imitates Arizona State with a jump from RPI double digits. ... Up to No. 8 in this week's RPI, Oklahoma has momentum that may carry weight with the committee, as might Lauren Chamberlain's recent return, but we're talking small margins, and a 1-4 record against RPI top-10 teams, including a series loss against Louisiana-Lafayette, weighs it down.
For the full field, teams currently in first place in conferences are projected as automatic bids below:
Automatic bids: UCF, Florida State, USC-Upstate, Fordham, Stony Brook, DePaul, Oklahoma, Idaho State, Coastal Carolina, Michigan, Long Beach State/UCSB, Tulsa, James Madison, Green Bay, Dartmouth, Marist, Ball State, Delaware State, Wichita State, Boise State, Bryant, Jacksonville State, Oregon, Lehigh, Alabama, Georgia Southern, McNeese State, North Dakota State, Jackson State, Louisiana-Lafayette, BYU, New Mexico State.
At-large bids: Arizona, Arizona State, Auburn, Baylor, Florida, Florida International, Fresno State, Georgia, Hofstra, Houston, Kentucky, Lipscomb, LSU, Minnesota, Mississippi State, Missouri, Nebraska, NC State, Northwestern, Notre Dame, South Alabama, South Carolina, South Florida, Stanford, Tennessee, Texas, Texas A&M, UAB, UCLA, Virginia Tech, Washington, Wisconsin.
Last five teams in: Houston, Stanford, Hofstra, Florida International, Fresno State.
First five teams out: Louisville, Kansas, San Diego State, College of Charleston, Cal State Fullerton.
Notes: Fresno State and Boise State are currently tied for first in the Mountain West, which has no conference tournament, but Boise State holds the tiebreaker. ... Long Beach State and UCSB are tied for first in the Big West, which also has no tournament. Those two teams play three games this week, with Cal Poly a game behind both.
Miserable in Missouri
In one of the least surprising developments of the season, Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine wants kids to quit playing on his lawn.
Earleywine didn't appreciate it when Alabama players celebrated an outright SEC regular-season championship with an infield dog pile after the second game of a three-game series between SEC rivals. He called the celebration "bush league" and suggested an outright championship meant no more than a shared title.
While we're at it, someone tell Bob Cratchit to quit wasting so much coal to keep the office warm.
A coach sticking up for his program and his players is fine, but it's hard to stomach this particular bellyaching. If Earleywine wants to act like he'd rather be digging ditches, fine, but the rest of the sport doesn't need to follow his lead.
Some might suggest it was "bush league" to publicly blame everything short of horoscopes for a loss against LSU and all but guarantee two wins the following day, as Earleywine did in a 2012 super regional. The next day, LSU advanced to the World Series. This time the chorus in Columbia again said an opponent was merely the beneficiary of the home team's mistakes in Friday's game. And again, the other team left town with the series win a day later.
Others would suggest there is something bush league in hiding statistics from opponents and public consumption, a departure from convention of every other college team sport. Nick Saban doesn't do it. Geno Auriemma doesn't do it. Missouri coaches in baseball, basketball, football, soccer and volleyball don't do it. Earleywine does.
Earleywine's quirks and peculiarities aside, no one can argue that they add up to anything less than one of the sport's best programs. He is a gifted teacher of hitting, perhaps the best. He coached Missouri to a pair of World Series appearances with pitching ace Chelsea Thomas -- but he also guided the team to Oklahoma City in a season in which Thomas was hurt for most of the season. He may well get them back there in the season after Thomas left. Those things don't happen in a sport where aces mean everything.
Improvements to the softball facilities in Columbia are apparently in the works, and they should be, because there are a lot of programs with money and facilities that would happily take Earleywine off Missouri's hands.
When it comes to softball, he is smarter than most of his peers and all of the rest of us. He is excellent at his job.
He is also a joyless misanthrope who often appears to resent that job.
Perhaps he is the life of the party and a complete cutup at home, but he is too often a bundle of gloom in softball settings, a man whose peers view him with professional respect but no personal affection. He is the guy in the black hat for reasons beyond school colors. Even he has acknowledged he feels like a square peg in a round hole.
"I have a hard time relating to female athletes in general, to be honest with you," Earleywine said a season ago. "If I have an Achilles' heel, it is I don't understand the emotional component involved. I treat the game like a scientist. This is a business. X plus Y equals Z. And with girls, it's X plus emotion plus Y equals Z."
If he wants to coach baseball and measure out joy by the thimbleful, lest an unwritten rule be broken and delicate sensibilities offended, he should go coach baseball.
Except that he made the choice not to. Two roads diverged and he took the one he thought was an easier walk.
"I got to see the best of the best coaches on these women's teams and I realized the coaching talent was lacking," Earleywine said in that same interview a season ago in reference to his time playing with the men's national fastpitch team. "I say that in humbleness because I was a very average baseball coach, very average. But I felt like I could get to the top much quicker in softball because of the diluted pool of applicants that I was going to be coaching against."
Is it bush league to say something like that, or is it an honest sentiment that will rub some the wrong way?
Is that any different from the honest emotion of celebrating a championship?
When players win a championship that was two months in the making (and for someone at least usually forthright, equating an outright title with a shared one was the height of disingenuousness), they earn the right to enjoy it. That softball offers both cutthroat competitiveness and displays of joy is one of its best qualities.
And if you don't want a team to celebrate on your field, score more runs than them.
How's that for an old-school approach?
Players of the week
Lauren Chamberlain, Oklahoma: Is she back? Ask Texas Tech coach Shanon Hays, whose team walked Chamberlain three times in Sunday's series finale. For the week, Chamberlain went 3-for-6 with eight walks and a pair of home runs, her first home runs since returning from a month out with a back injury. Asked about it in an interview during the broadcast of Saturday's game against the Red Raiders, she said, "I love the smell of the grass, I love the pop of the glove, but nothing is better than hitting a home run and rounding the bases." That was after she video bombed pitcher Kelsey Stevens' interview. So, yes, Chamberlain is back.
Farrah Sullivan, UCF: UCF's run to the first American Athletic Conference title was fueled by a pair of pitching aces, sophomore Shelby Turnier (18-5, 1.26 ERA) and junior Mackenzie Audas (17-10 1.69 ERA), but Sullivan and the offense played their part in applying the finishing touches during a three-game sweep of Connecticut that clinched the crown. Sullivan went 6-for-10, including two doubles, with two walks and two stolen bases in the series. She also scored four times and drove in four runs. Picked to finish fourth in the preseason, the Knights look like NCAA tournament locks.
Sierra Hyland, Cal Poly: With no conference tournament, the Big West seemed to be gliding to a quiet conclusion. Then Hyland got involved. Cal Poly swept three games at Long Beach State this past week, pulling itself within a game of first place and dropping Long Beach State into a first-place tie with UC Santa Barbara. Hyland pitched complete-game shutouts in the first and third games of the series, allowing just five hits in 14 innings in those starts. She also earned the save with a perfect inning of relief in the second game and went 2-for-2 with an RBI at the plate in that game. She leads all freshmen nationally with 24 wins on the season. If Cal Poly sweeps UC Riverside and Long Beach State wins two of three games at UCSB next week, the Mustangs go to the NCAA tournament.
Miranda Kramer, IPFW: IPFW's junior ace won the race to 300 strikeouts this season, and she did it by coming on strong down the home stretch. Tied for eighth in the nation in strikeouts at the beginning of the week, she recorded 41 of 57 possible outs by strikeout in three appearances to reach 300 for the first time in her career (she is also the NCAA active leader in career strikeout rate). And it's not like hitters were doing much when they did make contact; Kramer had three shutouts this past week and allowed a total of three hits and three walks in 19 innings.
Chelsea Wilkinson, Georgia: Entering the weekend, only two pitchers had beaten Kentucky twice in an SEC series, and neither Auburn's Lexi Davis nor Tennessee's Ellen Renfroe held the Wildcats to fewer than two runs in any of those wins. Wilkinson not only beat the Wildcats twice, she held them to one run each time. All told, she allowed just seven hits and three walks and struck out 18 batters in 14 innings. By sweeping Kentucky, Georgia remains squarely in the race for a top-eight seed in the NCAA tournament and the corresponding opportunity to host a potential super regional.