Thrill of Victory

Winners and losers of the NCAA's regional pairings

For college baseball fans, the exercise of griping over the NCAA Baseball Tournament pairings is as much a part of Memorial Day as beer and grilled hamburgers. Living in Southeastern Conference country, I heard plenty of griping this year about how the NCAA had handed out regional assignments this season, in particular.

In particular, the two loudest were from Mississippi State and Vanderbilt fans complaining that their teams got regionals tougher than each deserved. One other interesting dynamic with SEC fans is a borderline hatred with the Atlantic Coast Conference, which, along with the SEC, got a lot of the primo seeding spots in this year’s tournament, including a tournament-high five host slots.

So in light of the fussing, I decided to dive in a deeper to see if some of the gripes about what the Selection Committee did hold water.

Before I go further, let me state what I will and won’t examine. I’m not going to dive in to a debate about who should have made the field (sorry, Campbell) and which teams should have been left out. Today, I’m going to deal only with the bracket we’ve been given, and especially as it relates to which of the 16 regional hosts and how relatively easy or tough their draws were.

Here’s what I found.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!
In addition to the Vanderbilt and MSU complaints, one common gripe I heard was that the Committee went easy on the ACC’s North Carolina and Virginia in handing out regional opponents. That’s a matter of opinion and all opinions contain biases, so in order to look at things as bias-free as I could, I looked at the strength of each host’s regional as judged by two measures: the NCAA’s RPI and BoydsWorld.com’s ISIR ratings, which have been around for years and are well-respected in the baseball community.

One thing a lot of fans have done is to take the RPI numbers of each of the three opponents and potential opponents in each regional, add up the numbers, and determine toughest-to-easiest based on that raw number. It’s not a bad start, but there’s one problem: each 1-seed doesn’t usually play each team in its regional, and even if it does, it probably won’t play each other an equal amount of times. In short, except for the 1 and 4 playing on Fridays, we have no idea how each regional will play out.

But, there’s a way to make a rough guess.

Here’s what I did: I looked at every regional game – all 163 of them – for the past three years. Since all I then determined how often the 1-seed played the 2, 3 and 4 in its regional. As it turned out, the 1 faces the 2 in 36.2 percent of the match-ups, the 3, in 28.8 percent, and the 4, 35.0 percent of the time.

I then used the probabilities that each team would face each opponent and multiplied them by the opponents’ respective RPIs and ISIRs to get what I’ll call a “potential regional opponent rating” (or “PROP,” if you prefer.) Take, for instance, Vanderbilt’s regional: the Commodores have Georgia Tech (22 RPI, 24 ISIR), Illinois (39/49) and East Tennessee State (83/98). That comes out to a PROP of 48.2 if you use RPI, and 57.1 if you use ISIRS.

Averaging the two PROPs, and ordering each team’s draw from toughest to easiest, here’s what we get:

1. Mississippi State, 38.9

2. UCLA, 46.7

3. Vanderbilt, 52.7

4. South Carolina, 52.9

5. Virginia Tech, 58.9

6. Oregon State, 59.4

7. Kansas State, 61.2

8. Cal State Fullerton, 62.8

9. North Carolina, 77.8

10. Indiana, 82.3

11. Oregon, 83.1

12. Florida State, 85.1

13. North Carolina State, 89.9

14. Louisville, 90.3

15. LSU, 101.4

16. Virginia, 113.5

My initial reactions to this are:

1. WOW! Did the selection committee forget that it tabbed Virginia as the No. 6 overall seed in the tournament, and not No. 1? The Cavaliers’ draw was far and away the easiest.

2. The folks in Starkville are right to be angry, as Mississippi State’s regional is far and away the toughest. In addition to drawing the No. 18 and 28 RPI teams as its 2 and 3 seeds, it also got paired with a 4 (Central Arkansas) which took two of three games from MSU in Starkville earlier this year. The NCAA should have sent UVA’s 4, Army (204 RPI, 222 ISIR) and UCA to Charlottesville instead.

3. As big as MSU’s gripe, Vanderbilt’s might be even bigger. The committee decided that Vandy was the second-best team in the field, and then gave it the third-toughest regional.

4. Upon further review, North Carolina’s draw wasn’t as easy as most of us thought. UNC got a decent 2 in Florida Atlantic (27, 35) and the eighth-best 4 (a Canisius team that went 41-15) in the field. The head-scratcher is how Towson (89, 133) got a 3-seed in this region, but again, remember that the 3 is the team that the 1 typically faces the least. That helped UNC’s regional rate a little tougher than perceived.

As for the Super Regionals…
The NCAA doesn’t use an s-curve when pairing regionals against each other, which would probably be the fair thing to do (i.e., pair the top overall seed with the weakest host, the No. 2 national seed with the next-weakest host, and so on). But it doesn’t, and in some ways its not as big a deal as the regional pairings, because I’m not sure how much difference there is between the No. 9 and 16 teams in the field.

But lets suppose it did – assuming that the NCAA got the right order with its 1-8 seeds (I have no big gripe here), who should each team play in a Super Regional? I averaged the remaining eight teams’ RPIs and ISIRs and put them in order, using the higher RPI to break any ties. The pairings should have been:

1. North Carolina vs. 16. Kansas State

2. Vanderbilt vs. 15 Louisville

3. Oregon State vs. Indiana

4. LSU vs. 13. UCLA

5. Cal State Fullerton vs. 12. South Carolina

6. Virginia vs. 11. Virginia Tech

7. Florida State vs. 10. Mississippi State

8. Oregon vs. 9. North Carolina State

Interestingly enough, Vanderbilt and Oregon drew those actual opponents.

North Carolina, which drew South Carolina instead of Kansas State, was the biggest loser, while Florida State (Indiana instead of Mississippi State) was the biggest winner.

Of course, there will likely be upsets as there always are, which brings us back full-circle to Mississippi State and Virginia. MSU not only has the toughest regional draw, but if it makes it through, it’s paired opposite of – you guessed it – UVA, which according to BoydsWorld has a 98.8 percent chance of advancing. One thing’s for sure: should the Bulldogs make it all the way to Omaha, nobody will be second-guessing whether they deserve to be there.