Thursday, January 31, 2013

Examining the non-conference schedules

When taking a look at the non-conference schedules Mountain West softball teams will play in 2013, one thing is clear:  The Ratings Percentage Index numbers for the league as a whole should be impressive.

The seven Mountain West teams this season will play a total of 74 games against teams that finished ranked in the RPI Top 50 a year ago.  And while you can't base everything on last season's RPI, it does provide a strong indication that most everyone is scheduling up.

Every team in the MW will play at least one Top 10 team this season.  And the majority of teams in the conference will play multiple games against Top 10-ranked teams.  No Mountain West team plays a more impressive schedule than San Diego State in 2013.

Coach Kathy Van Wyk's Aztecs will play a total of 18 non-conference games against teams that ranked in the RPI Top 100 a season ago.  San Diego State faces a juggernaut of a slate, meeting the likes of No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 3 California, No. 5 Oregon, No. 8 Missouri and No. 13 Arizona, among others.

One of the more impressive aspects of San Diego State's schedule is who the Aztecs don't play.  They don't play many weak teams at all.  SDSU will face just two opponents who finished outside the RPI Top 200 last year, fewer than any other team in the conference.  In terms of RPI potential, it's important.  The Aztecs' probability of an RPI-crushing, bad loss are almost non-existent.

Alongside San Diego State, perennial power and Mountain West newcomer Fresno State plays a rigorous schedule itself, and one very similar to the Aztecs.  The Bulldogs and SDSU play 14 of the same non-conference opponents, and Fresno State will play a total of 22 games against those 14 schools.

Coach Trisha Ford's Bulldogs will play 3rd-ranked Cal, 5th-ranked Oregon, No. 8 Missouri (twice), and 19th-ranked UCLA, among others.  One of the more intriguing matchups of 2013 will come at the Fresno State Classic in March when the Bulldogs host 2012 NCAA Tournament qualifier Oregon State, which received enough votes to rank 30th in this year's preseason USA Today/NFCA poll.

Former Fresno State All-American and Olympian Laura Berg, widely regarded as one of the best softball players in the world, is in her first year as head coach of Oregon State.  She'll bring her Beavers squad to compete at Bulldog Diamond, where she starred and later served as an assistant coach for her alma mater, March 7-10.

Colorado State plays one of its strongest schedules in recent memory, which seems appropriate for a veteran team with a wealth of returning talent.  The Rams will face No. 9 Georgia, 16th-ranked Washington, and a 3-game series in College Station against No. 17 Texas A&M, which will be no easy task.  Coach Jen Fisher's squad will play 10 games against teams that finished ranked in the RPI Top 50 last season.

This year, Boise State faces the fewest number of non-conference opponents (21) in the Mountain West.  But the Broncos, under Coach Erin Thorpe, will play nine of those teams more than once.  Boise State's slate is highlighted by a 3-game series in Tucson against 13th-ranked Arizona in early March.  Also on the docket for BSU are single games on the season's opening weekend in Tempe versus Pac-12 powers Oregon and Arizona State.

In addition to facing Arizona three times in 2013, Boise State will play Portland State, Idaho State and the University of San Diego all three times.  Two-game series for the Broncos will be played against Texas Tech and Tulsa (both of whom received votes in preseason Top 25 polls), as well as future Mountain West member Utah State.

Coach Lisa Dodd's UNLV Rebels are another MW team that will take on 5th-ranked Oregon.  One of the more exciting games of 2013 could be when the former UCLA great takes on her former team.  Dodd's Rebels will tangle with the Bruins March 10 at a tournament in Long Beach.  UNLV, just like Boise State, will play twice each against both Texas Tech and Tulsa.

Also on tap for the Rebels are games against 10th-ranked and Southeastern Conference power LSU, No. 18 Louisville (which went 55-5 a year ago), DePaul, and Virginia Tech.

New Mexico and Coach Erica Beach will see where it stands early in the season.  By the opening Saturday of the year, UNM will have already faced two of the nation's top four ranked teams.  On opening day, the Lobos take on 2011 NCAA champion Arizona State, and two days later it's 2nd-ranked Oklahoma, the NCAA runners-up a year ago.

UCLA and Washington are also on tap later this season for the Lobos, who will play doubleheaders in the Pacific Northwest in March against both Oregon and Oregon State.

Matt Meuchel's Nevada squad faces a schedule that could see the Wolf Pack come away with a winning overall record for the first time in four seasons.  California is the lone preseason Top 10 team Nevada will see this year, but key games against UCLA, Oregon State and Hawai'i loom.

The Wolf Pack will face Rutgers and Utah twice each in 2013.

Overall, opportunities abound for RPI-boosting victories for Mountain West softball teams this season.  If the conference's men's basketball non-conference season proved anything this year, it's that non-league victories count in a major way.  In fact, it will be the difference between the MW sending two, three or possibly even more teams to the NCAA Tournament, or settling for only the conference champion earning a bid like last season.

Non-conference wins could pay off big time for Mountain West softball teams on Selection Sunday in May.  The time to begin winning is next week.