5 observations from NCAA Top 10 softball rankings reveal
It isn't quite softball's Rosetta Stone, but it will have to do. Following a trend in other sports, the NCAA Division I softball selection committee this week released in-season rankings for the first time ever. Instead of waiting for the announcement of the official bracket on May 15 (ESPNU, 10 p.m. ET), we get some sense of the committee's thinking weeks in advance.
"We felt with three weeks left in the season, we wanted to create this top 10 ranking to really create excitement and interest about the sport," said Mollie Lehman, chair of the Division I softball committee. "That was sort of the intent of releasing the ranking."
As is so often the case in life, a little bit of knowledge creates at least as many questions as it does answers. Not the least because the rankings are by necessity already out of date, based on the data available through the beginning of the final week of April. But with this fragment, which suggests a rematch of last year's championship round between Florida and Michigan could be in the offing, a few things come into focus as May arrives.
Florida is unchallenged at No. 1
Whether or not the outcome of Florida's pursuit of a third consecutive national title is as much of a foregone conclusion as Connecticut's recent pursuit of a fourth in women's basketball, there is a distinct similarity in each team's iron grip on the top seed entering the postseason.
Florida isn't just in its own tier at the top, it's in its own zip code.
The Gators entered the weekend with an 18-3 record against teams ranked in the RPI top 25. Alabama was next with 13 such wins -- and it was the only other team in double digits (not to mention the Tide also had seven such losses). Measure it by stats, where the Gators are nearly a run per game better in ERA than almost any other team. Measure by what the eye test tells you about a two-time defending champion that just keeps winning games. Or measure it by the committee's criteria. Florida is -- and even barring a loss or two down the stretch or in the SEC tournament will be -- the top seed.
Oklahoma wins the release
No team will enjoy these rankings more than Oklahoma, which is ranked No. 8 in the USA Softball Top 25 but third on this more important list. No team made a bigger jump.
"There was definitely healthy conversation about that," Lehman said. "With the information we had, as of [the most recent RPI release], I think that the committee felt that they had some really quality top 25 wins, including Alabama. I think given the sort of information we had, we felt pretty comfortable ranking them in the No. 3 spot."
What difference does that make if the real prize is finishing anywhere in the top eight, thereby potentially hosting both a regional and super regional? With no Big 12 tournament, Oklahoma's remaining schedule offers few chances to enhance its résumé (unlike Washington or Florida State). Ranked No. 7 or No. 8 by the committee, it would have been in danger of being passed regardless of how it closed the season. Instead ranked No. 3, that remaining schedule actually works to its advantage. All of its remaining opponents are currently ranked in the RPI top 100, although none are in the top 30. That doesn't do much for enhancing a résumé, but it is ideal for holding steady. Which may be all Sooners need to do.
Kentucky left scratching its head
The top 10 teams in the committee's rankings match the top 10 teams in the RPI, so it's not as if there are any great surprises. Still, Kentucky should be disappointed.
Ranked 12th in the most recent RPI, the Wildcats began the week with a 9-6 record against RPI top 25 teams. That represents both more total wins and a better winning percentage in those games than Florida State or Louisiana-Lafayette (as well as Missouri, ranked one spot ahead of Kentucky in the RPI). And with a 17-4 record against teams ranked between Nos. 26-100 in the RPI, it's not as if Kentucky ceded ground to its competitors by losing focus in other games.
Not to mention that much of Kentucky's best work, wins against Alabama, Oregon (neutral site) and three times against LSU came away from home (Kentucky's 19 road wins lead the nation).
Lehman made it clear the rankings remain fluid, those now in the top 10 not guaranteed to remain there. Kentucky appears to be one reason why.
Good news, bad news for James Madison
Seeded in the NCAA tournament a season ago and able to host a regional for the first time (although it failed to advance), James Madison still has a chance not only to duplicate that this year but potentially to stay home for a super regional. That would be a rare prize for a mid-major team with no World Series history. The chance just isn't as good as the ranking suggests.
Landing at No. 6 despite the lowest strength of schedule among the teams ranked is proof that the committee looks favorably on the entire body of work. To underscore that, Lehman indicated that the area of most discussion for the committee was separating James Madison and Oregon.
"We had some significant dialog about them," Lehman said. "And I think we look forward to continuing that dialog as the season progresses but also when we're in the room and we have the ability to continue to dig into the stats as the season progresses."
If the committee spent time debating James Madison and the Pac-12 leader and ranked the former ahead of the latter, that is good news for the mid-major. The bad news is a 15-inning conference loss to Elon on Saturday in which the Dukes thrice took the lead in extra innings but couldn't close it out. In the data the committee looked at, no team in the top 10 had a loss outside the RPI top 100. James Madison now does.
All eyes turn to Louisiana
And not, unfortunately for some of the most passionate fans in the country, toward Lafayette. The flip side to James Madison, Louisiana-Lafayette faces an uphill battle to a top-eight seed (although it does appear to be in good shape to host a regional for the third season in a row).
No, the series to watch before the end of the regular season is Washington's visit to LSU next weekend for three games. For Washington, which already began the week with as many RPI top-25 wins as any teams save Florida and Alabama, it's a potential trump card to play against the teams ahead of it (all the more if someone like Florida State or James Madison stumbles unexpectedly). For LSU, not part of the NCAA's release but No. 15 in the most recent RPI, it's a chance to shore up an NCAA tournament seed and perhaps even more.