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May 23, 2006

SCS.comAs children, it’s fun to play with bubbles.

But as children grow up and become college baseball players hoping for NCAA Tournament berths, playing with bubbles is about the last thing they want to do.

There’s less than a week to go until this spring's regional selections are made next Monday, and that means some bubbles are going to be bursting all around the country while others will slide their way into the '06 regional field.

Missing Traditions

A few of the names people are accustomed to seeing in the postseason are on shaky ground entering the final week before the big announcement.

Mississippi State (35-21, 12-17 SEC)

With the way the Bulldogs were performing midway through the season, it’d have been hard to see them being anywhere near this list at this point, but unfortunately they are. From 18-0, #1 in the country, and being the talk of college baseball to on the NCAA bubble. They had a chance to somewhat redeem themselves with a good finish in the SEC’s last two weekends, but instead finished 1-5 to miss the SEC Tournament by a half-game.

In their favor: History. In the past three seasons, teams from the SEC who missed the conference tournament received regional invites. The 2004 Bulldogs were one such team.

Against them: The facts. They lost seven of their last eight SEC series. They finished 11-17 in the second half of the season. A combination of pitching inconsistency, clutch hitting, and fielding woes doomed them in many close games.

Verdict: If there aren’t too many upsets in conference tournaments, MSU may well sneak into the field. If they do, and the right team shows up, they could be a darkhorse to make a run at Omaha.

Louisiana State (34-22, 13-17 SEC)

This year has not been a typical year in Tigerland. LSU started 2-7 in the SEC (they also had a poor start last year before roaring back to win the West title) and then won five of six conference series to pull near .500 with two weekends left. They dropped those final two series, but with MSU failing to do their job, LSU still backed into the SEC Tournament.

In their favor: A non-conference schedule featuring a three-game series with Houston, two games with archrival Tulane, three with A-Sun surprise North Florida, and three with Stetson. They also won conference series against the top two teams in the SEC West, Alabama and Arkansas.

Against them: Their RPI is below that of a few other teams. And while they took series from Alabama, Arkansas, and Houston, they also lost series at home to MSU, Vanderbilt, and South Carolina, along with road losses at Florida and Mississippi. Being swept in series against USC and UM doesn’t help much either.

Verdict: It’s hard to picture a postseason without LSU. If they make an early exit in the SEC Tournament, that could spell doom for the Tigers. But, if they can win at least one game, that might be enough to assure them a spot somewhere, though it won’t be at Alex Box for the first time in nearly two decades.

Stanford (29-23, 11-13 Pac-10)

A few weeks ago, Stanford was miles away from the bubble, sitting at 3-9 in the Pac-10 and closer to the cellar than an at-large bid. But, a 7-2 stretch, including a series win vs Arizona State and a sweep at Washington, threw the Cardinal into the picture.

In their favor: High RPI, tough schedule, and several quality non-conference wins. A sweep of Cal-State Fullerton to start the season was followed with series wins against Texas and Fresno State before a slide started that took them out of the polls and the regional picture.

Against them: They had a chance to finish at .500 in the Pac-10 with a series win at UCLA, but after taking the opener, they dropped the final two. Depending on what "Udub" does against "Wazzu" this weekend, the Cardinal may end up finishing sixth. At best, they’ll finish fifth, but will that be enough?

Verdict: Just like LSU has been a staple of the NCAA regionals in the past few decades, so has Stanford. If they can win their remaining three games (at Pacific, at/vs UC-Davis), that will put them at 32-23. With their solid stretch run and the above factors, the committee may well look favorably upon a team who, without a doubt, is one of the top 64 teams in the nation, but hasn’t exactly proven it consistently.

Unrest Out West

Murderous non-conference schedules, nasty records, and great pitching. That’s the story out West.

Long Beach State (29-24, 12-6 Big West)

Murderous non-conference schedule equals an overall record barely above .500.

In their favor: Said murderous non-conference schedule, featuring series against USC, Cal, Baylor, Texas, and Big West rival Fullerton, plus two games against both Pepperdine and UCLA and single games against Rice, Oklahoma, and Lamar. That hurts my eyes to even look at. With even just one win this weekend against CSF, they’ll finish second in the conference. The Big West is #6 in RPI, so that will bolster their cause.

Against them: Swept by Fullerton and Wichita State, lost two of three to both Baylor and Texas, and dropped all four games against Pepperdine and UCLA. It’s good to have a tough non-conference schedule, but it’d help to have a little more success with it. Even with that slate, their RPI stands at a borderline 44. They also dropped conference series to UC-Santa Barbara and Cal-State Northridge.

Verdict: Good team, good pitching, and a future first-round pick who gets confused with an ABC TV star. However, if they can’t muster up a series win against Fullerton this weekend, they might be the Desperate 49ers come next week.

UC-Irvine (34-20, 9-9 Big West)

Opening up Big West play with Fullerton and Long Beach State had the Anteaters in the cellar after two weekends, but they’ve been on a roll since. They sit third in the conference standings entering the final weekend.

In their favor: Like the 49ers, Irvine has played a pretty tough non-conference schedule: Fullerton, Hawaii, Houston, Cal, and Oral Roberts, and two games with UCLA, USC, San Diego, and Arizona. Their RPI of 37 puts them in good stead, along with the aforementioned fact that the Big West is such a highly-rated league. Plus, it’s not such a bad thing they played Fullerton and Long Beach early, despite the hole it put them in.

Against them: Third in the Big West might not be enough, judging by the snub of Cal Poly last year. And a record not too far above .500, even in that league, could raise some question marks.

Verdict: They finish with UC-Riverside at home in a series they should win. Win it, and they’ll have 36 or 37 wins and a mid-30s RPI. Poly was left out last year with an almost identical record, but the saving grace for Irvine is the non-conference schedule, which they had moderate success in. They’re not completely a sure thing, but they’re close.

Washington (34-24, 9-12 Pac-10)

The Huskies entered conference play with a pretty good record, but they’ve been like a yo-yo since.

In their favor: Non-conference wins over Hawaii and Arkansas, as well as series wins over the two L.A. schools.

Against them: Their RPI stands in the 70s, which is about double what it needs to be. There’s also a glaring loss to Division II Lewis & Clark State.

Verdict: Even a sweep against their archrivals from Pullman this weekend will leave them closer to the wrong side of the bubble come next Monday. It’d put them at 5th in the Pac-10, but there are just too many holes in their resume. It’s unfortunate because it’d be nice to see what possible #1 pick Tim Lincecum could do in the postseason.

Slip, slip, slippery Ground

There are a few teams who are on the right side of the bubble for now, but can’t afford to slip this week. If you’re a shakier bubble team, you’re either hoping they don’t slip, or you hope they do, because it could mean the difference in you staying home and you getting to spend part of your summer on the road to Omaha.

Vanderbilt (33-23, 16-14 SEC)

The Commodores were supposed to have a down year, but they’ve gotten major contributions from newcomers, especially Pedro Alvarez, and after finishing 6th in the rugged SEC, they are in with more than a fighting chance.

In their favor: Sixth in the SEC would equate to a top two or three finish in a lot of other conferences. It’s hard to turn down a team with a winning record in the SEC.

Against them: Their RPI is in the 40s, and that’s below the other SEC bubble teams. They had far too many inexcusable non-conference losses and not enough quality wins to make up for it.

Verdict: Go out early in the SEC Tourney, and they’re toast, burnt toast.

Louisiana-Lafayette (37-18, 19-5 Sun Belt)

The school formerly known as Southwestern Louisiana won almost 50 games last season, and while they won’t quite reach that number this year, they’ve quietly had another solid season.

In their favor: The Sun Belt has gotten multiple teams in the NCAA Tourney every year for almost two decades. ULL’s solid postseason history, while not a factor directly taken into consideration, doesn’t hurt them either. They also took two of three from regular season champ Troy, and they have a few good non-conference wins as well.

Against them: Third-placed South Alabama may be more of a lock than ULL, with a higher RPI and better non-conference slate. The Jaguars also beat them head-to-head. Their RPI of 48 might also be cutting it a little close.

Verdict: The RPI is a little worrying and it won’t go up much farther, but if they can do well in the SBC Tourney, it’d be hard to say they don’t deserve a spot. The Sun Belt has gotten three bids before, and it could happen again. Troy’s a lock and USA is close (without a quick tourney exit), and barring any surprises, there’s no reason why ULL shouldn’t make it three for the SBC, which has been one of the top mid-major conferences for a while.

Teams To Root For (If You’re On the Bubble)

It’s almost a guarantee that there’ll be some upsets in the conference tournaments this week. But, here are the teams that bubble teams hope take home their conference tournament titles.

Michigan (38-18, 23-9 Big Ten)

The Wolverines stormed through the latter part of their Big Ten schedule and took the regular season title from Northwestern in the final weekend by sweeping Iowa. That gives UM the right to host the Big Ten Tournament this week in Ann Arbor.

In their favor: The Big Ten regular season title doesn’t count for as much in baseball as it does in football or basketball, but it still counts for something. Finishing 10-1 has put them near the ‘magic’ 40-win mark. Games against Baylor, Winthrop, Troy, South Alabama, UCF, UAB, and Louisiana Tech highlight the pre-conference slate. They also own a win over Notre Dame.

Against them: An RPI of 60 gives the Wolves no margin for error.

Verdict: The Wolverines got in as an at-large last year with 41 wins, despite finishing tied for fourth in the Big Ten and going 1-2 in the Big Ten tourney. Their RPI is 20 spots lower, but bettering that 1-2 in the conference tourney would give them the same number of wins, at least. Couple that with the positives, and they should get in, even as an at-large.

Wichita State (43-18, 15-9 Missouri Valley)

The Shockers opened the season 20-3, but once they hit conference play, it took four weeks to record their first series win. But, they’ve won 19 of their last 24 games, and they appear to be on the right side of the bubble, for now.

In their favor: Sweeps of USC and Long Beach State, two wins against Oklahoma, a win against Kansas, and a win against South Alabama bolster their resume. So does a 12-3 finish in their last five conference series, with three sweeps.

Against them: Losing their first three conference series put them in too deep of a hole. Even with their strong finish, it wasn’t quite enough to overtake Evansville and Missouri State. Third place in the nation’s 12th-rated conference, behind two teams who won’t make the regionals without an automatic bid, is not good. To be fair, though, it was by only one game, and they did sweep Missouri State (though they dropped two of three to Evansville).

Verdict: Their RPI is in the high 40s, and it could move into the 30s with a good week in the conference tournament, which they're hosting. Opening with Creighton isn’t an easy task, but if they can avoid going out early, they should book their spot in the field. But, some other teams with shakier statuses will be cheering for the Shockers to go all the way.

Old Dominion (39-15, 21-9 CAA)

A month ago, I mentioned Old Dominion as very nearly a lock to get into the NCAAs, barring a big slip down the stretch, as they stood at 31-4 and 14-1 in the CAA. Pretty comfortable, right? However, an 8-11 finish to the regular season took away any certainties (and the CAA title).

In their favor: They beat Virginia and Maryland, and they also swept James Madison, who overtook them in the final weekend for the title.

Against them: RPI stands at 46, which isn’t a killer, but it’s not a helper either. At their peak, that RPI was in the 20s. They didn’t play very many ‘good’ non-conference games, either. Oh, and that 8-11 finish too.

Verdict: The Monarchs need to redeem themselves by going deep in the CAA Tourney. Making the semis would give them 41 wins, but as UNC-Wilmington found out last year, 40 wins assures you of nothing (and neither does winning your conference by six games). A run to the final could be enough, but they need to go all the way to erase any doubts.

Other teams you need to root for if you’re MSU, LSU, Stanford, or another bubble team include Notre Dame, Troy/South Alabama, Winthrop, and Elon/College of Charleston.

If they slip up, here are a few of the quality candidates who could take an automatic bid and make it one less at-large bid to go around, or could very well sneak into the at-large picture, depending on what they do.

UNC-Wilmington (37-19, 17-13 CAA)

The Seahawks were snubbed by the committee last year after running away with the CAA regular season title. This year, they could well spoil someone else’s hopes.

In their favor: A better non-conference schedule and record than last year.

Against them: 5th in the CAA.

Verdict: The Seahawks shouldn’t take an at-large bid, but if they win the CAA Tourney, the committee could be in a quandary, depending on ODU and JMU’s results. Three bids would be too many. Two bids could happen. But, it could be a one-bid league. For you bubble boys, this is a league where you hope there isn’t an upset like there was last year.

Connecticut (38-16-1, 18-6-1 Big East)

The Huskies were a solid team all season long, but a 10-1 finish pulled them into second in the Big East behind Notre Dame and into the at-large conversation.

In their favor: Not much. The second-place finish in the Big East looks nice though, and so do series wins over St. John’s and Florida Atlantic. They also played Lamar, Jacksonville, and Boston College.

Against them: The Big East is high on the totem pole for most other sports, but in baseball, it’s the middle of the pack, and that second-place finish doesn’t look as appealing. Taking a game from ND or finishing with 40 wins could’ve helped.

Verdict: Getting to the Big East title game might do it for the Huskies, because they’d finish with over 40 wins, which would make it hard to turn them away. The Big East did get two last year, so UConn may get in, but not without at least 40 wins.

James Madison (36-19, 22-8 CAA)

One of the nation’s top hitting teams, the Dukes were one of the hottest squads in the country early on before hitting the skids in the middle part of the season. However, they finished strong, and with Old Dominion’s free fall, won the CAA regular season title on the final day, edging out the Monarchs by a single game.

In their favor: Give me a minute.

Against them: Clemson is the best opponent JMU faced, and the Tigers swept them. Their RPI of 74 is fifteen spots lower than UNC-Wilmington’s. Two wins over UNCW and two more over ACC bottom-feeder Virginia Tech are the best wins they have, and that’s not saying much.

Verdict: As much as we all would like to see the firm of Kulbacki, Cowgill, and Schill on display in the regionals (unless you’re an opposing pitcher), it’ll likely take at least making it to the CAA Tourney final. Even then, the automatic bid might be their best bet.

And hey, keep your eyes peeled for what Birmingham-Southern does this week. They took the Big South regular season title and tourney #1 seed by capitalizing on Winthrop’s series slipup at VMI.

Big 12 Bubble Battle

Two teams, one spot? Two teams, two spots? Two teams, no spots? It all depends on what the two teams below do this week.

Baylor (34-22, 13-14 Big 12)

Up and down, up and down. The Bears were a semifinalist in Omaha last year, but this year, they’ve been a big ball of inconsistency.

In their favor: They swept both Oklahoma State and Nebraska at home, accounting for almost half of their Big 12 wins. Non-conference series against Arizona State and Long Beach State, along with games against Rice, Houston, TCU, Southland champ McNeese State, and Big Ten champ Michigan beef up their cause and RPI. A series win against Kansas (see below) could also give them an edge.

Against them: Series losses against Texas Tech, Missouri, and Kansas State, three teams who won’t make the NCAA Tournament.

Verdict: Before getting swept by K-State this past weekend, the Bears had won seven in a row, including that sweep of the Cornhuskers. The committee should look upon that favorably, along with their fifth-place (tie) conference finish. However, BU must avoid doing poorly at the Big 12 Tourney to have a chance at repeating their run to Omaha.

Kansas (38-23, 13-14 Big 12)

The Jayhawks have been a steadily improving program over the past few years, and this could be their year, with a little more work.

In their favor: Wins against Clemson, Stanford (two), Vanderbilt (two), Creighton (two), Wichita State, and Missouri State.

Against them: Best series win in conference was Missouri.

Verdict: In the Big 12’s new round-robin format, KU faces Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Missouri. Split vs OU/OSU and beat Missouri, and you get to 40 wins. Could it get them into the title game? If it does, it’d be enough. If it doesn’t, it’ll be a nail-biting Monday.

Speaking of the Big 12, watch out for Missouri. It may be a little late to take an at-large bid, but a sweep of Texas gives the Tigers some momentum going into the conference tourney. If they could win it, it could very well be at the expense of the Jayhawks’ hopes.

Close, But No Cigar

USC could’ve had hopes for an at-large bid if they’d finished over .500, but a series sweep this past week in Wichita means they’ll finish below that mark.

Washington State has been a nice story, and compared to the last several years for Cougar baseball, they’ve had a very successful year. But they’ll come up just a little short, with a poor non-conference schedule and a finish in the bottom half of the Pac-10.

St. John’s was an at-large in ‘05, and they had 37 wins this year. But, if there’s anyone not named Notre Dame in the Big East that’ll get an at-large bid, it’ll be Connecticut. Beware though, they could still win the automatic bid.

San Diego picked up several great non-conference wins, but after finishing third in the West Coast and picking up too many losses to drop that once-lofty RPI into the 50s, the Toreros may miss out.

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