For every year there has been an NCAA baseball tournament, there seems to also have been plenty of questions arise regarding not only the teams selected to host regionals, but also the field itself.
Whether it’s been 48 teams (pre-1999) or the 64-team field enjoyed by baseball fans and schools for 20-plus years, there inevitably seems to be at least one team — most of the time it’s more than just one — that feels snubbed, whether it’s missing out on being one of the 16 hosts or just getting into the tournament. Every year, there is a team that can make its case that it should have been in the tournament over another, and there are always a couple of teams that could have been hosts but instead will have to go on the road as a No. 2 seed.
But it seems like the 2022 Field of 64 might be a tipping point for the factors the NCAA selection committee uses to fill out the bracket.
Highlighting this year’s list of questions marks were the denials into the field of North Carolina State and Wofford and the omission of Notre Dame and Oklahoma as hosts. The Wolfpack was a solid team all season even if their RPI didn’t reflect it, and they were one game from winning the ACC tournament title and an automatic bid. Wofford, similarly, had a good run in the Southern Conference and had a decent RPI at 35. Yet the Terriers missed the field as well, as did Rutgers, which finished second in the Big Ten and has a No. 42 RPI.
In terms of North Carolina State, NCAA Division I chairman Mike Buddie said on the ESPN selection show broadcast that the differences between the Wolfpack getting in and not getting in were miniscule, but those miniscule differences sometimes can be the deciding factor.
In a statement released via social media, N.C State athletic director Boo Corrigan said he was “shocked” and “disappointed” in the selection committee’s omission of the Wolfpack.
Similarly, Notre Dame had a particularly good case to be one of the 16 hosts with a No. 13 RPI, and proved as much by going on the road and winning the Statesboro Regional hosted by Georgia Southern. Likewise, Oklahoma, which finished tied for second in the Big 12 and captured the Big 12 tournament title — albeit about an hour after the host sites were announced — stunned host Florida in the Gainesville Regional to advance to the Virginia Tech Super Regional.
But it was clear that RPI was the overwhelming metric used in terms of choosing the hosts, all of which came within the top 22 in RPI. That left teams like Notre Dame, Wake Forest and Oklahoma on the outside looking in in terms of hosting, as well as TCU, which became the first Big 12 regular-season champion to not host a regional thanks to a No. 36 RPI and No. 125 non-conference strength of schedule. The Horned Frogs took No. 5 overall seed Texas A&M to the brink before losing a barnburner in the regional final in College Station.
“Well again, you feel like you go back and forth with these numbers,” Buddie told on3 Sports. “There was some incongruency this year. I think this is my sixth year on the committee, and often times, RPI and conference finish are a little bit more aligned. So that was a good thing, because we don’t ever want to rely solely on one metric and it forced us to really dig in.”
And therein could like part of the problem.
Coaches have known for a while now that the committee relies heavily on RPI, and many have begun scheduling to fit that metric. The RPI is a formula that takes into account a team’s winning percentage, a team’s opponent’s winning percentage and a team’s opponent’s-opponent’s winning percentage. It also puts more emphasis on road victories than home victories, and less on road losses than home losses.
That’s why teams like Dallas Baptist get into the tournament despite finishing barely over .500 in Missouri Valley Conference play. The Patriots hold a No. 9 strength of schedule that leads to a No. 23 RPI. North Carolina State finished one game under .500 in the ACC, but with a No. 181 non-conference strength of schedule, the Wolfpack finished with just a No. 32 RPI. Conversely, Texas Tech made the field as a No. 3 seed at Georgia Southern thanks to a second-place finish in the Big 12 overriding the Red Raiders’ No. 45 RPI.
The best example of the parity in the selections this year — 11 of the regional sites had to go to Monday before deciding who moved on to the Super Regional. Of those 11 games, 10 were winner-takes-all.
So, that begs the question — does the committee need to take a long, hard look at the RPI and whether it is truly a metric that fits the college game? It is the same RPI formula for college basketball, but that covers roughly 35 games in a season, not up to 56 as in college baseball. Plus, college baseball plays weekend series of three games or more, where basketball is just one to three games per week.
Buddie alluded to having to look past RPI this year because it didn’t always jive with conference finish for a lot of teams.
“So, when we were looking at Notre Dame and Oklahoma and LSU for some of those last host spots, we had to get really particular,” Buddie told on3.com. “Instead of looking just at quad one, we looked at record against teams ranked 1-25 to try and separate. Our belief was to be a national seed, unless you’ve done something spectacular in your conference regular season and/or winning the tournament like East Carolina and Stanford and Tennessee were all able to do, how do you perform against those exceptional teams, those elite teams. Being able to host makes an enormous difference. Certainly, the regular season needed to matter.”
What kind of formula could be substituted for the RPI has yet to be proposed. Perhaps it’s as simple as putting less weight on the RPI and more on conference finish, but then again, not all conferences are equal in terms of strength. That’s why there are usually more teams from the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 in the field than other conferences.
But given what the committee had to deal with in 2022, where RPI and conference finish didn’t always line up, this should give them the impetus to come up with something that better aligns with the uniqueness of college baseball and the best 64 teams make the field.