TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Louisiana Tech coach Mark Montgomery described it as a “What the hey?” moment.
His softball team had gotten hot at the right time, won the Conference USA Tournament with a 1-0 victory over FIU and clinched its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2008.
Then on Sunday night the brackets were revealed and had the Lady Techsters heading to Alabama, where they will open the Tuscaloosa Regional against maybe the best team in the nation, Minnesota. What should have been their proudest moment ending up being somewhat disheartening.
“For a lot of programs seeing their name on the television and hearing their name mentioned goes a long way,” he said. “Unfortunately, we were denied a little bit of that because of all the controversy and what went on with the other teams. So it’s a little disappointing when you’re not even mentioned.”
It was a lot worse than that. Although the fans will benefit from the quality of play, the controversy surrounding the brackets has completely overshadowed everything else so far.
Simply put, it’s a regional that should have never been put together, nor should the winner have to potentially face top-seeded Florida in a super-regional next week.
We’ll get to Minnesota in a moment and start with Alabama, seeded 16th in the tournament.
One thing the committee got right was granting invitations to all 13 programs that play in the Southeastern Conference, as they were all deserving. In the Rating Percentage Index, commonly known as the RPI, Arkansas had the lowest ranking at No. 33. Georgia, which didn’t qualify for the SEC Tournament after finishing last in the standings, was 26th.
NCAA Softball Selection Committee
- FBS Pacific Region: Associate AD/Compliance Shalini Shanker, Colorado State, Mountain West Conference
- FBS Northeast Region: Head coach Michelle DePolo, U.S. Military Academy, Patriot League
- FBS Central Region: Senior Woman Administrator Keisha Dunlap, Conference USA (committee chair)
- FBS Central Region: Executive Associate Athletics Director Lynnette S. Johnson, Ole Miss, SEC
- FBS East Region: Senior Associate AD Brandi Stuart, UCF, American Athletic Conference
- FBS South Region: Sr. Assoc. AD Chris Helms, Virginia Tech, Atlantic Coast Conference
- FBS Mideast Region: Sr. Assoc. AD Sarah Baumgartner, Rutgers, Big Ten
- FCS Northeast Region: Head coach Jenny Allard, Ivy League
- FCS Midwest: Associate AD for Compliance Natalie Shock, Central Arkansas, Southland Conference
- DI West: Senior Women’s Administrator Ashlie C. Kite, Long Beach State University, Big West Conference
One has to wonder what the committee was thinking regarding four teams that were seeded higher than Alabama: No. 11 Utah, No. 12 Ole Miss, No. 13 LSU and No. 14 Kentucky.
You always hear the term body of work regarding bracket placement, but this committee appears to have ignored that concept.
• Utah (33-14) is No. 19 in RPI. After losing a weekend series Oregon State and then getting swept by Washington at home, the committee moved it up instead of down. The guess here is that travel was a factor, with a potential super regional matchup of Utah at Washington, but still surprising.
• Ole Miss (40-18) won the SEC Tournament, but had finished the regular season 10-14 in league play. Even with those four wins in Knoxville last week the Rebels were still only .500 against conference competition. Ole Miss’ RPI was No. 18, and while you can make the argument that they earned the right to host, moving up all the way to No. 12 was nothing short of extreme.
• LSU’s RPI was No. 14, and it lost a weekend series to Alabama in April. At 41-18, the Tigers knocked off a good Auburn team to reach the SEC Championship Game, but both it and Alabama lost to the same opponent, Ole Miss.
• Kentucky (36-17) and Alabama didn’t play this season. The Wildcats were 12-12 against league opponents during the regular season. They didn’t make a big splash in the SEC Tournament and their RPI was No. 16, behind Alabama, which also had a better record (42-16).
Alabama’s RPI was No. 15, which makes the No. 16 seeding look acceptable until you factor in the teams ahead of it, and those stubbed as regional hosts including James Madison (No. 13 RPI).
Which brings us to the Golden Gophers, who arrived in Tuscaloosa on Thursday with massive chips on their shoulders and T-shirts reading “Win Anyway.”
— Minnesota Softball (@GopherSoftball) May 18, 2017
“No one believes in us except us and that’s what we have to focus on,” senior infielder Sam Macken said.
Minnesota enters the regional 54-3, with a 25-game winning streak and pitcher Sara Groenewegen (30-2, 0.59 ERA) a finalist for USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year. The Gophers are ranked first in this week’s USA Today/NFCA Coaches Poll, and third in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Poll, yet inexcusably didn’t get a top-16 seeding.
Following the uproar, the committee made the unusual move of issuing a statement. It includes: “Many factors were considered regarding team seeding … and the final decision was difficult. As a part of the selection criteria, the committee reviews each team’s body of work individually when selecting the field of 64 teams for the softball tournament. When selecting the top 16 seeds, the committee emphasizes a team’s performance against Top 25 teams along with other variables including strength of schedule.”
Statement from the NCAA DI Softball Committee regarding the University of Minnesota's softball team: pic.twitter.com/uWRN0cCaiM
— NCAA Softball (@NCAAsoftball) May 15, 2017
Minnesota’s strength of schedule was No. 114. It was 2-2 against teams in the RPI’s Top 25.
However, among the numerous problems with the committee’ statement was that RPI factors in strength of schedule, and the Gophers were still 11th. Another was that the committee obviously used RPI in a case-by-case basis.
This also came after it had released two early Top 10 rankings, similar to what’s done in football and other sports. Minnesota was listed in both.
Through April 20:
- Florida (41-3)
- Arizona (43-3)
- Texas A&M (37-5)
- Florida State (41-3-1)
- Auburn (37-7)
- Washington (32-10)
- Oregon (37-4)
- Minnesota (40-3)
- Tennessee (39-5)
- UCLA (30-12)
Through May 3:
- Florida (46-5)
- Florida St. (48-3-1)
- Arizona (47-5)
- Washington (38-10)
- Auburn (43-8)
- Oregon (41-6)
- Minnesota (48-3)
- Tennessee (42-8)
- Texas A&M (41-7)
- UCLA (37-12)
Minnesota went undefeated after the second ranking, sweeping Penn State and then winning all three games it played in the Big Ten Tournament at neutral-site Michigan. It knocked off hard-throwing Ohio State in the title game, 6-0.
Part of the committee’s statement addressed this specifically: “The rankings are not used by the committee when determining the seeds and final bracket.”
It makes one wonder two things: Why did they bother to release the early rankings? And what criteria were used to piece together the bracket?
Fine, the Big Ten wasn’t a good softball conference this season. That doesn’t mean Minnesota wasn’t a top team. It’s not like it tried to avoid playing top competition.
Minnesota opened the season at Texas and beat the Longhorns twice. It partook in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and played in high-profile tournaments at Fresno State (which was a ranked team last year), LSU, beating the Tigers on their home field, and at Washington, where it crushed Cal, 10-0.
Overall, the Gophers were 16-3 against other NCAA tournament qualifiers, a winning percentage of .842.
Thus the enormous frustration felt by Gophers coach Jessica Allister, who has had the extra burden of trying to keep her team from being sidetracked by the controversy.
“I have a lot of thoughts, but I refuse to be anything but excited now,” Allister said. “I think we’ve gotten better every day. I think it’s unrealistic to say that as soon as it happened and you’re dealt a shock and a blow like that you’re going to bounce back and be ‘Let’s go.’”
Minnesota practiced at home on Monday, traveled on Tuesday and worked out at UAB on Wednesday before holding a final workout at Rhoads Stadium, which is known for its big crowds and attendance records. When asked if any coaches had reached out to her this week, Allister said “Everyone,” but then her patience ran out. “How much longer are we going to talk about this?
“You have to move on.”
Taking part in today's press conference. pic.twitter.com/dYtT0QgRYq
— Minnesota Softball (@GopherSoftball) May 18, 2017
Friday, the four teams in Tuscaloosa will begin to do so. Minnesota opens the double-elimination regional against Louisiana Tech at 2:30 p.m. ET (ESPNU), followed by Albany vs. Alabama at 5 p.m. ET (SEC Network).
With the Crimson Tide in the unusual position of hosting a regional that they’re not expected to win, each of the teams are calling themselves the underdogs.
“We feel like we’re the underdogs of the underdogs,” Albany coach Mikala McCauley said.
Alabama’s draw might be the toughest in tournament history, and yes, should Minnesota advance to play Florida a fair comparison would be North Carolina and Gonzaga, which was 32-1 while playing in a weaker conference, meeting early on in the recent NCAA men’s basketball tournament instead of the championship.
That’s why this was nothing short of embarrassing for the committee.