Sunday, May 15, 2016

The case for Fresno State to host an NCAA regional

The day has finally arrived -- Selection Sunday.

The NCAA softball selection committee is hunkered down, going over facts, figures, numbers, results and deliberating who to select and where to send them for the 2016 NCAA Tournament that begins Thursday.

It's an inexact science to be sure.  And it's often an unfair one as teams like Fresno State learned as recently as last season.  You may remember the Mountain West champion Bulldogs last season were sent to Eugene for a 4-team regional that consisted of Pac-12 champion Oregon, Summit League champion North Dakota State, and West Coast Conference champion BYU.

It was the only regional in the country that matched four conference champions.  It was the only one where all four teams had 40 or more wins.  And it was the only regional to have three of its four teams receiving votes in the national polls.  Oregon was the No. 1 team in the nation in the NFCA poll at the time, North Dakota State was No. 25, and Fresno State was receiving votes.

Unfair?  Yeah, probably.  But as we've learned over the years:  As in life, always hope for the best, but prepare for the worst when it comes to the NCAA softball selection committee.

With that said, let's take a look at the criteria the NCAA says it takes into consideration in determining all aspects of which teams get in, and where they play.  The determining criteria:

  • Strength of Schedule
  • Ratings Percentage Index (RPI)
  • Head-to-head Competition
  • How a Team Finishes the Season
  • Records vs. Common Opponents
  • Location of Games Played

Fresno State can make a strong case in its bid to host a regional based on several of these factors.  The single biggest help to the Bulldogs:  Strength of Schedule.  In the final Strength of Schedule report by the NCAA prior to the start of Mountain West play, Fresno State was 10th in the nation.  In the final SOS report thru games of May 8, the Bulldogs were 14th in SOS, meaning they'd only fallen four spots with their conference games added in.

Non-conference strength of schedule (click to enlarge)
A Top 10 non-conference strength of schedule is a big deal when there are 295 NCAA Division I teams.  Fresno State head coach Trisha Ford scheduled a strong slate specifically to prepare her team for conference play and ensure a strong RPI if the Bulldogs took care of business against an elite group of opponents.  The Bulldogs did that.

Along with the Top 10 non-conference SOS, another criteria the NCAA considers -- Location of Games Played -- weighs heavily in Fresno State's favor.  The Bulldogs did not sit at home and have the top powers come to them.  Fresno State went on the road and proved its worth, competing in some of the nation'e elite tournaments against national powers.  The 'Dogs went to the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic in Palm Springs, the Judi Garman Classic in Fullerton, and the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe -- the best of the best tournaments in college softball.

And there they faced the likes of Oregon, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Baylor, Northwestern (two games), Utah, Oregon State, California, Long Beach State, Indiana, Wisconsin and many more.  They hosted the likes of Washington and Kansas (two games).  They played true non-conference road games against Big West champion Cal State Fullerton (a team that beat nationally-ranked Oklahoma and Arizona State along the way this season) and Pacific (a team that defeated nationally-ranked LSU in Baton Rouge this season).

Simply put, Fresno State challenged itself like few teams in the country do in non-conference play.  The Bulldogs have marquee wins away from home.  They earned a 7-3 win in Tempe against a Top 10-ranked Tennessee Volunteers team that finished 41-14 overall and 16-7 in the ultra-tough SEC.  They scored a 2-0 neutral-site shutout win over a 32-win Utah team that finished with a winning conference record (13-10) in the powerhouse Pac-12.  In neutral-site games, they picked up a win (over Cal) and a tie (vs. Oregon State) against two teams virtually guaranteed to receive NCAA at-large bids today.

And it doesn't stop there.  Fresno State has two neutral-site wins over a Northwestern team that finished third in the difficult Big Ten.  They defeated Indiana, as well as the champions of the Ivy League (Princeton) and Big Sky Conference (Weber State), both of whom will be appearing in the NCAA Tournament.

Here's what is important:  The NCAA can send a message to the rest of the country by selecting Fresno State as a host site.  If you go out and schedule the very toughest slate of games you can schedule, and you do well against that schedule, you will be rewarded.

Conversely, the NCAA can send a damning message today as well.  It can say this:  Even though you played a Top 10 non-conference slate, Bulldogs, we've decided to stick with the status quo and go with the power conference teams because we've always done it that way.

The Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) is another key area for the Bulldogs.  Fresno State is 18th this week in the RPI after being 17th last week.  The Bulldogs actually fell in the RPI a spot last week after sweeping a road series in Reno against a Nevada team that finished the season 32-15 overall.  Does that make sense?  No.

The RPI, by its very nature, is a flawed tool that rewards teams from power conferences simply because they face those highly-ranked teams during league play.  Teams like Fresno State do not get to pick their opponents in conference play.  Upstarts like Boise State, which has only sponsored the sport of softball since 2009, are on the Bulldogs' schedule whether they like it or not.  The Bulldogs can only control their non-conference portion of the schedule.  And they controlled the controllable portion of the slate by scheduling tough.

How a team finishes the season is also a big area where Fresno State holds power in this discussion.  Until yesterday, the Bulldogs had the nation's longest winning streak, and they will enter the NCAA Tournament having won 23 of their past 24 games.  They have a 12-game road winning streak.  If the committee is truly looking to reward a team playing strong down the stretch, look no further than the Bulldogs, who have lost just once since the middle of March.

Games vs. common opponents and Head to Head Competition are other factors, and ones where the 'Dogs look strong.  Fresno State beat Pacific, which owns a win over LSU.  Fresno State beat Tennessee, which beat Missouri, Georgia, Auburn and Texas A&M, among others.  Fresno State beat Utah, which beat Arizona, Arizona State, Washington and Cal.  Fresno State swept a 3-game series from San Diego State, which beat Texas A&M, Cal, BYU, and Oklahoma State.  Fresno State swept a 3-game series from New Mexico, which beat Nebraska.  The list goes on.

To summarize, Fresno State meets all the criteria most important in NCAA selection, according to the NCAA's own guidelines.  The record is one of nation's 10 best -- 41-10-1.  The team finished with the most wins and best record in Mountain West history -- 22-1.  It finished strong, winning 23 of its final 24 games.  It has marquee wins over nationally-ranked opponents and numerous teams that will be on both the automatic NCAA bid and at-large board.  And most importantly, the Bulldogs played one of the nation's Top 10 non-conference schedules precisely for moments like this:  So they would be the ones cheering on Selection Sunday when they see FRESNO STATE listed as one of 16 NCAA regional host sites.

Let's hope the committee follows its own established guidelines and looks at all criteria it's supposed to look at, rather than relying merely on the RPI.  We will be watching and hoping.

Oh, and there's a glorious weather forecast for next weekend in Fresno with sunny skies and temperatures in the mid- to upper-70s.  We call that perfect California weather for a nationwide ESPN audience and the thousands of fans that will definitely fill Margie Wright Diamond.