It might be only January, but the experts at Baseball America have their eyes on the prize. They're thinking ahead and projecting the field for the 2009 NCAA baseball tournament. Here's how they see the 64 teams panning out.
Last year, the ACC produced three national seeds and four regional hosts. The top conference in 2009 will be the Big 12, which will yield two national seeds and four total regional hosts. Like the ACC a year ago, the Big 12 will produce the top overall seed in Texas A&M, which will be rewarded by the committee for winning the nation's best league.
Oklahoma State slips to a No. 3 seed by finishing as the sixth team in the loaded Big 12. The four Big 12 teams that open the season in the Top 25 project as No. 1 seeds, leaving precious few wins for the bottom half of the conference. If history is any guide, the sixth team from any conference is extremely unlikely to earn a No. 2 seed. If the Cowboys get a full season out of Andy Oliver and some hitters such as outfielders Dusty Harvard and Dylan Brown emerge to answer questions about the lineup, they could easily climb higher in the conference pecking order.
North Carolina passes Louisiana State for the No. 2 overall seed thanks to a gaudier record padded by series wins against the ACC's soft underbelly. The SEC has no such weak patch, as all 12 teams should be very competitive. Auburn and South Carolina are two of the toughest omissions from the field of 64, but the SEC will not get nine bids this year because the ACC will be stronger in the middle than it was in 2008, when UNC, Miami and Florida State dominated but the league got just six bids. The ACC will climb back to eight berths in 2009, highlighted by Duke's first regional appearance since 1961. The SEC and ACC lead all conferences with eight bids apiece, while the Big 12 and Pac-10 each place six teams in regionals.
Along with the Gamecocks and Tigers, other teams that will land on the wrong side of the bubble are Houston, Arizona, Cal Poly, San Diego State, South Florida and Dallas Baptist. All are talented enough to make strong pushes for regional bids, but all have significant questions to answer. Dallas Baptist should be a very good team with abundant offensive talent, athleticism and a few power arms, but its soft schedule -- with just two three-game series, against Oral Roberts and Texas A&M, against 2008 regional teams -- will keep it from earning its second straight regional bid. The independent Patriots play 37 total games against Binghamton, Siena, Oakland, Central Arkansas, Louisiana-Monroe, Minnesota, Louisiana Tech, Houston Baptist, Northeastern, Utah Valley State, Northern Colorado and Jacksonville. Even winning the vast majority of those games won't salvage DBU's RPI.
Like the ACC, the Pac-10 will be less top-heavy in 2009, helping it climb from five regional berths to six. USC and Arizona will battle it out for the last spot, but the Trojans have the advantage of the nation's best overall player in Grant Green. He'll carry USC back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in coach Chad Kreuter's tenure.
Mid-major contenders Kent State and Fresno State each earn No. 3 seeds thanks to conference RPI troubles, but both could be very dangerous in the postseason. Recall that Fresno won the 2008 national title as a No. 4 seed. On a side note, Kent State's trip to Georgia Tech would provide a nice story line, as Golden Flashes coach Scott Stricklin came to Kent from Tech, where he was an assistant coach. Another story line of note is Princeton, coached by North Carolina alumnus Scott Bradley, playing in Chapel Hill as the No. 4 seed.
San Diego is the only No. 1 seed that won't host, as Cunningham Stadium is ill-equipped and Tony Gwynn Stadium across town provides scant home-field advantage. The Toreros hope to follow Arizona's example from 2008 and become another Western team to win a Midwestern regional as a top seed.
The last four teams into the field are Duke, USC, Notre Dame and Michigan. Those four, as well as Troy (which gets in safely as the No. 2 team in the Sun Belt Conference), earn No. 4 seeds as at-large teams.
The state of Florida gets shut out of regionals for the first time since 2006. Before that, the Sunshine State had hosted at least one regional for 30 straight years. It's easy to envision Florida State, Miami and Florida playing their way into regional hosting position, but those teams could also easily finish outside the top three in their conferences. Neither the ACC nor the SEC is likely to host four regionals if the Big 12 is as strong as expected.
Perennial Missouri Valley Conference power Wichita State misses the NCAA tournament for the third time since 1987. The Shockers are extremely young and will be passed by a veteran Missouri State club in the MVC. The Bears make up for a mediocre conference RPI and earn a No. 2 seed thanks to a strong nonconference schedule that includes 16 games against Nebraska, Oregon State, Arkansas, Oral Roberts, Oklahoma State and Missouri.
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