Bubble looks more bloated than ever before

May, 24, 2010

Paging all bubble teams -- how about winning some games down the stretch to play your way into the NCAA tournament?

Most years, there are a handful of teams with legitimate gripes about being left out of the field of 64. This season, it's a lot easier to find reasons to exclude teams from the tournament than explanations for why they should be invited.

Last week, people were talking about 10 bids for the SEC. After this weekend's results, it's hard to imagine the conference with more than eight regional teams. Tennessee was swept at home by Alabama, while Kentucky dropped two of three at last-place Georgia. Those were the two teams that most needed to make the SEC tournament to improve their postseason chances, and now neither will have the chance. Closer to the top of the conference, Auburn went on the road and swept Ole Miss to take the Rebels' hosting spot (along with the SEC West title). Arkansas took two out of three at Vanderbilt, which keeps a regional in Fayetteville and leaves the fifth-place Commodores as the most likely team to travel as a No. 1 seed.

If there was ever a year for the smaller conferences to make noise, it's 2010. In addition to the two presumed SEC spots opening up, both the Big West and Conference USA are having down seasons. After combining to send six teams to regionals in 2009 (four of which reached a super regional), the Big West will get two bids this year, while Rice could be the only C-USA representative. With the depth of strong teams in several mid-major conferences -- the Big East, Southern Conference and Sun Belt could each send three or more teams to the tournament -- this should be a banner year outside the power conferences.

There's a big caveat there -- the selection committee needs to be willing to let it happen. Recent history suggests that the debate between a seventh-place team from a power conference and a third-place team from a smaller conference favors the big boys. Last year it was Oklahoma State, which, despite failing to qualify for the Big 12 tournament, was selected over teams like Rhode Island. In 2008, College of Charleston's exclusion was a talking point.

The final weekend of the regular season set up the ACC to benefit from any major conference preference that the committee might show. North Carolina swept nationally-ranked Virginia Tech over the weekend but will still miss out on the ACC tournament. The Tar Heels have a top-25 RPI and have played 23 games against top 50 competition and likely played their way into the NCAA tournament. The conference boasts 10 teams in the RPI top 50, and if either Boston College or NC State makes noise in the conference tournament, the ACC could earn nine bids.

The national-seed picture has largely resolved itself at this point. Georgia Tech or Miami could pick up the final spot by sweeping through the ACC tournament, but they'll need some help. The only way that South Carolina or Louisville could falter is with a two-and-out performance in the conference tournament, while UCLA plays a midweek game against likely regional host Cal State Fullerton before a weekend set with surging Washington State.

It's conference tournament time -- by this time next week, we'll be done with the projections and know the real field of 64.

Austin Regional
No. 1 Texas
Texas State
Texas Southern
Fort Worth Regional
Texas A&M
Columbia Regional
No. 8 South Carolina
Atlanta Regional
Georgia Tech
College of Charleston
Conway Regional
No. 5 Coastal Carolina
The Citadel
North Carolina
Fayetteville Regional
Kansas State
Wichita State
Gainesville Regional
No. 4 Florida
Florida State
Florida International
Coral Gables Regional
Florida Atlantic
Florida Gulf Coast
Charlottesville Regional
No. 3 Virginia
Washington State
James Madison
Auburn Regional
Virginia Tech
Jacksonville State
Los Angeles Regional
No. 6 UCLA
San Diego
UC Irvine
Fresno State
Fullerton Regional
Cal State Fullerton
Ball State
Louisville Regional
No. 7 Louisville
Ole Miss
Wright State
Norwich Regional
Boston College
Sacred Heart
Tempe Regional
No. 2 Arizona State
New Mexico
Norman Regional
Oral Roberts

Last five in: Pittsburgh, Liberty, Florida International, Boston College, Kansas

First 10 out: Oregon State, NC State, Southeastern Louisiana, Tennessee, Southern Miss, Western Kentucky, Kentucky, Northwestern State, Middle Tennesse State, Georgia Southern

None of the last five in should feel very comfortable at this point, as they were just the best candidates of a bad bunch. Kansas shouldn't be on that list after being swept at home by Oklahoma, but with Texas Tech's recent swoon, the Jayhawks are in position to pick up the Big 12's sixth bid -- after Oklahoma State last year, I can't see the conference getting just five regional spots.

Boston College has played one of the toughest schedules in the country (28 of 55 games against RPI top 50) but hasn't won enough to feel secure. Liberty and Pittsburgh both had chances to brush up their résumé over the weekend, but both dropped series and now need a good conference tournament showing.

The only one of these teams on the way up is Florida International, and that has more to do with Garrett Wittels' 48-game hitting streak than anything else. (The Panthers lost their weekend series at first-place Florida Atlantic.)

If you thought those were slim pickings, it gets even worse in the next tier of teams …

Oregon State: The Beavers salvaged the final game of their series at Arizona State and, despite sitting in eighth place in the Pac-10, could play their way into the NCAA tournament with a good week against Oregon and Arizona.

NC State: The Wolfpack are the exception on this list, as they won two of their last three series to finish seventh in the ACC, and a winning record in the conference tournament could flip them to the good side of the bubble.

Southeastern Louisiana: The Lions were swept at home by Northwestern State to fall into third place in the Southland.

Tennessee: The Volunteers finished the SEC season in 10th place after being swept at home by Alabama.

Southern Miss: The Golden Eagles finished second in C-USA, but dropped four of their last six games and surrendered 41 runs in a three-game set against Rice to finish the regular season on a down note.

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers enter the Sun Belt tournament as the eighth seed and have gone 4-7 so far in May.

Kentucky: With a chance to secure an SEC tournament berth, the Wildcats lost two of three at last-place Georgia, including a 20-0 whitewashing Friday.

Northwestern State: The Demons are the hottest team on this list (winners of seven straight) but likely need to win the Southland tournament to offset a fairly weak schedule.

Middle Tennessee State: The Blue Raiders finished third in the Sun Belt and host the conference tournament (20-7 home record) but are just 12-18 against the RPI top 100.

Georgia Southern: The Eagles finished third in the Southern Conference, but an 0-12 record against the RPI top 50 means they need a long tourney run to contend for a regional.

Texas Tech: After sitting in the top three in the Big 12 for most of the season, the Red Raiders sit at .500 overall and need to win two of three in the conference tournament to even gain regional eligibility.

Jeremy Mills is a researcher for ESPN and is a contributor to ESPN.com's college baseball coverage.



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