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May 28, 2012

Nine Innings: Finishing second or next to last

Today might just be my favorite day of the year. A lot of the work I do all season is either validated or rebuked in the span of a selection show. This year has been tougher than most for a variety of reasons but this week was as fun as it ever was. There are always some surprises in any field and also some themes that radiate throughout. We'll go nine innings - nine topics - on the sport we love.

First Inning

Years ago one of the Olympic events had only two entries, Russia and the United States. The U.S. team won the event. The Russian press reported the news as follows: The Russian team took second place and the Americans came in next to last.

Man, it must be nice to call all the shots. Confuse the masses with the loads of information and pick and choose the various pieces within to defend your decision. Basically the committee can pick who they want. If the members decide this year to reward strength of schedule, they can do it. Then on another team they can reward a team for winning their conference. When the team has neither, they can rely on other criteria - like being second in their region. The bottom line is if you are a bubble National seed, bubble host team, or bubble at large team you are at the mercy of the committee conversation.

That isn't anyone's fault per se. My wife and I can't agree on the colors for the remodeled bedroom and there's just two of us. There are ten members on the committee and all are getting pressure from their respective employers to "protect our interests". It's their job to do so and some are better at it than others.

Here's the committee:
Kyle Kallander - Big South Conference Commissioner
Eric Hyman - South Carolina Athletic Director
Larry Gallo - North Carolina Associate Athletic Director
Gary Overton - East Carolina Assistant Athletic Director
Chris Monasch - St. John's Athletic Director
David Heeke - Central Michigan Athletic Director
John Hardt - Bucknell Athletic Director
Dennis Farrell - Big West Conference Commissioner
Mark LaBarbera - Valparaiso Athletic Director
Randy L. Buhr - Washington State Associate Athletic Director

Of that group, South Carolina received the last National seed. North Carolina's Regional got a #2 seed that was sweating out even getting in the field. That team was East Carolina (see member list above) who got in the field despite finishing fifth in their conference and stumbling down the stretch. Looking at the remainder of the committee, there were really no close calls with any of their members.

Lesson for next year, ties go to the runner and the teams with sufficient representation.

Second Inning

"Looking for plumber, no experience necessary, will train. $50 per hr."
Call 512-555-1111 (Imagine that's DeLoss Dodds' cell number)


So, Texas. You think you can push us around? Just jump around flexing your muscle and breaking up conferences. You started your own network. Sure, more people watch the reality show, Physics with Snookie, but the Longhorn Network caused plenty of ruckus.

The Big XII always seemed to get the benefit of some Weise decisions in recent years. Check out that committee list again folks. You think Texas was getting the benefit of the doubt? Payback's a female dog with PMS and thorn in her paw.

It didn't matter that Texas finished third in the Big XII. It didn't matter that they played Stanford, Cal, and the Astros College Classic which should meet the non-conference strength of schedule criteria.

This was about an opportunity. Again, make the decision and then find statistics to justify it. It's not that difficult.

All that blustered, this was not a good season for the Longhorns and frankly I would rather see someone else get a chance. The Horns knew their fate was in jeopardy entering thei conference tournament and dropped games to Missouri and Kansas. They weren't alone with their late-season struggles but hey, they are Texas. They shouldn't put themselves in that position to begin with.


Third Inning

If a Twitter user is not following you, you cannot send him or her a direct message, so you must send that user a public reply.

Messages come in all shapes and sizes. Some are veiled, sneaky messages conveyed through carefully chosen words. A lot of people miss those messages.

Other times those messages are yelled across the room, sent by certified letter, or emailed with all caps, Arial Black 48 font. Those are tough to miss.

I think our selection committee sent the latter kind to the power conference coaches as they build their non-conference schedules. They saw teams like Georgia, Auburn, Wake Forest, and Virginia Tech finish down in their standings and still hold out hope for an at large berth.

Not on my watch, Sparky.

It is ironic that both Georgia and Auburn dialed down their non-conference schedules after flirting with a .500 overall record in 2011. They had basically the same teams this season - just a better record and worse RPI based on scheduling philosophy. Last year Georgia got in and Auburn had a great argument had they finished a game over .500 instead of 50/50.

Those coaches out there thinking of loading up on SWACs and MEACs to pad that win total, this isn't 1995. Win totals are irrelevant. Ask Utah Valley what 47 wins got them (the answer is a top seed in SEBaseball's upcoming NIT field - stay tuned for that on Tuesday). If you want to increase your chances at an at large bid - improve your non-conference Strength of Schedule and non-conference RPI. You don't get there unless you challenge yourselves and earn some Marriott points.

Wake Forest is probably upset they missed out on the deal. Committee chair Kyle Kallander said the group kept coming back to their 13-17 ACC record. And without anything in non-conference to offset it, the Demon Deacons are packing up for summer ball instead of Gainesville or Columbia.


Fourth Inning

The playboy looked around the room. The hot girl sat over there, alone for now, hoping for his advance. But he didn't like her type. She wore blue eye shadow. He had told her once he didn't like blue eye shadow. He would show her. So he looked around, found the best alternative - so what if she wasn't as attractive - at least she didn't have blue eye shadow.

The Committee told the SEC coaches last season that poor non-conference scheduling would not be rewarded. An LSU team that probably should have been a #2 seed was left out of the tournament completely. The RPI measurement was changed (affective in 2013) to account for teams that played too many home games.

Kentucky didn't listen.

Of course Gary Henderson didn't challenge himself with the American League East in February and March. When Henderson was making out his schedule, most of us were wondering who was going to take his place after the Wildcats suffered through another season near the bottom of the conference. Who can blame him for trying to save his job?

But the fact is Kentucky played in a mediocre tournament followed by series with Buffalo, Illinois-Chicago, and Canisius prior to conference play. Then they loaded up on local teams in midweek. And their non-conference strength of schedule reflected it as it was ranked 219.

Lady Gaga doesn't have enough lipstick to cover that pig. It was bad.

So we can kind of understand why the committee did not allow the Wildcats to host. After all, there have already been some discussions among coaching staffs that they were going to utilize the Kentucky schedule model for 2013 since it worked so well for Henderson.

To punish Kentucky, someone has to benefit. The committee looked around the bar, checked a few newbies out, and settled on the import from South Beach.

Kallander spoke about Miami's impressive non-conference schedule. That would be four home weekends against Rutgers, Albany, Florida, and Bethune Cookman. They were swept at home by the Gators. They played two non-conference road games - at FAU and Florida Gulf Coast.

The committee could have opted to award a Regional to Central Florida who was a Saturday rubber game with Rice away from winning the Conference USA regular season. They could have rewarded Mississippi State for their dominance of Kentucky and late season surge.

Instead, the choice was Miami. Also known as, Anybody but Kentucky.


Fifth Inning

Do we have to let your little brother play?

Yes, Mom said he has to play. Sometimes he does pretty good.

Sure, he is good for his age. But he can't play with us big kids. Besides his glove doesn't fit and he wears that cap with Kermit on it.

Well, Mom said we have to let him play.

OK, put him in right field and he bats last. I wish he would play with folks his own age.


The difference between an SEC program and a Southern Conference program is like a fight between Darth Vader and Yoda. Sure, Yoda has the force and all but there's only so much power to generate out of that small package. Darth has the force and also has the power to beat you down, build a new stadium, and fully fund his program.

College of Charleston cannot compete with South Carolina and Clemson head to head for players. The Cougars will get their share of good players - the scholarship limitations make sure of that - but if all three of those programs are hitting their stride there is no question who will be third.

The committee is expected to judge all of them based on the same criteria. Who did you play and where? Did you win? Do you choose to play them or was it an obligation?

College of Charleston received an at large bid, one of three the Southern Conference received. Sam Houston State received a bid out of the Southland. Indiana State and Missouri State each received at large bids out of the Missouri Valley. New Mexico State got one from WAC. San Diego (WCC), TCU (Mt West), Louisville (Big East), Michigan State (Big 10), Dallas Baptist (Independent) all got in as well. That is eleven at large bids from outside the SEC, ACC, Pac 10, Big XII, CUSA, and Big West.

That's 11 of 34 - close to 33% from non-power conferences. Of those, only three (at larges) were better than #3 seeds. This season only Big 10 champ Purdue broke through the old boy's host club.

Unlike that oblong sport, we like to fancy our stitch ball exercise as an inclusive one where everyone can win the title. Heck, Fresno State was exhibit A a few years back.

But for all of the teams that did get in, others will cry that the big boys gobble up all the bids when they have all of the advantages. Each year non-power conference coaches yell foul and wonder if this system has shut them out.

Maybe it does. It is infinitely tougher for Southeastern Louisiana to build a strong non-conference schedule than it is for neighboring LSU. One brings in millions. The other has car washes and bake sales.

Two programs competing for the same title under the same rules.

So the committee has a tough job. Do they take a power conference team that finished in the middle (or lower) of a strong conference or a smaller conference runner-up? The first team has a more talented roster. The second team had a better season.

There is no right answer to the question.

There are examples in this field where they have taken teams under each model. There are 297 Division I teams. Kallander said they evaluated 117 teams for the 34 at large spots. There are a lot of have-nots on that list.

Despite the advantages the big programs get, the committee is charged with analyzing the criteria evenly without regard for conference affiliation, geography, budget, or mascot type. Sometimes they get it right.

I think this time they did pretty well in a thankless job guaranteed to hack people off and have people like me ready to criticize each step.


Sixth Inning

Hey, didn't you used to be Ron Polk.

Hell, man I still am.

Oh, I thought you were like the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, or getting Kyle Peterson in the booth in Omaha. Just something my parents told me about but wasn't real.


I chuckled when UAB popped up as the #4 seed in Tallahassee. Word was out to look for Mississippi State as the #2 seed there. Someone on the committee is either blissfully ignorant or has a Doctorate in Marketing.

Whichever the case, it is a stroke of NCAA genius to put UAB in Tallahassee.

Ron Polk retired from Mississippi State for the second time in 2008. He put the Bulldog program on the map and had legendary battles with the NCAA over everything from scholarships and Title IX to the kind of bagel spread they offered in Omaha. He's not a fan.

After his retirement Polk needed something to do. After all, he had already written a book on baseball and there are only so many soap operas a man can watch. He decided to help out former assistant Brian Shoop at UAB. This year the Blazers caught fire and won the CUSA Tournament title snagging the automatic bid taped on the bottom of the trophy.

So UAB gets into the field and look who also shows up in the same Regional: Only the program with the volunteer assistant's name on the stadium.

After a rocky start John Cohen has turned the Mississippi State program around with a Regional title in 2011, an SEC Tournament title Sunday, and a team no one is thrilled to see in their quartet this year.

As is the case for anyone following a legend, the transition can be tough. Just like Smoke Laval following Skip Bertman or Sammy Hagar following David Lee Roth (or 40 year old 38" waist following 30 year old 34" waist), sometimes the fans never really embrace the next act.

Cohen is rolling and pulling off his late inning card tricks successfully. If he can knock off Florida State this weekend, he would follow the footsteps of the last MSU team to play in Omaha. In 2007, the Bulldogs won the Tallahassee Regional, beat Clemson in the Supers and had a steak in Omaha.

The coach for that 2007 MSU team will be in the ballpark this weekend wearing Blazer green.

Seventh Inning

"There's simply no feud more noteworthy than the legendary conflict between West Virginia's Hatfield family and Kentucky's McCoys, which has come to be the most famous historical example of the destructive power of vendettas. The differences between the wealthy Hatfields and the more working class McCoys started during the Civil War."

Quoted paragraph taken from this source

There's more if you want to read it. We'll be here when you get back.


College baseball's most heated rivalry is getting another chapter.

I remember a few years back walking into the old Sarge Frye Stadium and seeing people scalping tickets for a baseball game. South Carolina was playing Clemson that day and apparently a lot of people wanted to see it. Sure, it was early March. Basketball was in full bloom. The weather was brisk.

In most stadiums around the nation, you could have walked in and sat in the front row. In South Carolina they were scalping tickets to a sold-out ballpark.

South Carolina has won the last two College World Series titles and have sights on making it three. Along the way the Gamecocks beat Clemson twice in Omaha in 2010. The teams narrowly missed facing each other in a Super Regional last season. They were paired together but Clemson got caught looking ahead by Connecticut and the state missed out on an epic matchup.

This season the teams are on another collision course. South Carolina has an opener with Manhattan. Clemson has a tough opener with Coastal Carolina - a club that has be one of the top #3 seeds in any Regional. There is no guarantee that the two rivals will even play.

But if they do, hide yo kids, hide yo wife. There's gonna be a wild scene in Columbia Saturday night. If you are a Coastal or Manhattan fan fortunate enough to buy a tournament booklet, you could make your money back by unloading them for a Carolina-Clemson game.

There have been plenty of great moments in this great rivalry. But a postseason game inside the Palmetto border will be one of those moments that stop the state.


Eighth Inning

Give me four ribeyes, two New York strips, two sirloins, and a porterhouse.

How many stalks of broccoli do you want?

But I don't like broccoli.

Tough, you must have broccoli to get all the steaks you want.


Life on the bubble can be unpleasant. You never really know where you stand, which criteria that favors you will be magnified and which one you hope the committee disregards.

Many have pointed to Michigan State's at large bid as a surprise or perhaps labeled it unwarranted. The Spartans, did after all, finish fifth in the Big 10. The teams that finished second, third, and fourth are all at home and were really never even considered for an NCAA berth. So why were the Spartans special?

No, their AD is not on the committee (although that is always a good guess). And no, there was no criterion to get more green jerseys into the field this year. So what was it?

Kallander stated that Michigan State made an effort with their non-conference schedule. They played in the Big 10-Big East Challenge where they drew the three best Big East teams. They also went to Texas A&M for a weekend and followed it with a game at Baylor. Other than that, there's not many more croutons in the salad.

The other comment was that Michigan State was considered the best team in their region. Note the distinction that region does not equal conference. There is a coach in that region that provided the committee with a ranking of the teams in the Big 10, MAC, and any other teams in the geographic area. There is a similar adviser for other regions.

This coach ranked Purdue first and Michigan State second in that region. He may be right. But if being the second best team in your region is an automatic berth - as in we'll take two from here, three from there, and 17 from the Carolinas, then that opens yourself up to a whole lot of scrutiny.

People are going to complain about a quota system, no matter how well-meaning it may be.

Michigan State is a fine team with a talented roster. They should acquit themselves well in Palo Alto. But like St. John's last year, all many are going to think about is whether they got in on merit or a welfare system.


Ninth Inning

Man that was great. I could hear my coach so well. My parents got to sit in the front row of a 30,000 stadium and had a section to themselves. Dad likes to take his pants and shirt off and there was no one around to complain.

So how far have we come as a sport?

The SEC had over 12,500 for their tournament championship Sunday. The ACC had over 10,000 for a Saturday game in Greensboro between North Carolina and NC State.

ESPN is televising six Regionals on ESPNU and ESPN3 and other Regionals will also be televised locally or or streamed on the internet. We have come a long way since watching livestats stall and calling pressboxes for scores.

I heard some chatter that some people feel the postseason should be contested on neutral sites instead of college campuses. They would like to predetermine 16 professional parks and then send four teams there. It would certainly negate the home field advantage the host teams enjoy now and help bridge the advantage between the haves and have-nots.

From a competitive standpoint, it makes perfect sense.

But here is the problem. (You know there was going to be a problem didn't you?)

You would have to preselect 16 pro parks before the season to ensure they would be available. They would need to spaced geographically to ensure the neutrality of the field. When the field is assembled, you would try to find teams with fanbases that would travel to that site - i.e. Chicago or Indianapolis or Houston.

Easier said than done.

I know what you are going to say, basketball does it.

Basketball does not care if their venues have empty seats because their money comes from television. There's no such cashcow for our sport. In fact the tickets sold helps pay the guarantee required to host the Regional.

Some schools travel pretty well. Others can't draw well at home. If you like baseball played in empty stadiums, neutral sites is your thing. If you like the pageantry and atmosphere only available in a college campus, you'll put up with the teams that had the best seasons having an advantage in the postseason.

Someday the sport might be ready for neutral sites in the postseason. Right now, no way.




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