Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Evaluating the non-conference season

With the start of conference play just 48 hours away for Mountain West softball teams, it's time to take a look back at the non-league portion of the season.  While a small handful of non-conference games remain to be played, let's take a realistic look at where every team stands heading into Mountain West play.

Stats and records are for games played through Tuesday, March 17.  We'll go team-by-team based on current records.

Fresno State (19-10)

Wins over teams with current winning records:  6 (Texas, Oklahoma State, Rutgers, Cal State Northridge, Fordham, San Diego). 
Losses to teams with current losing records:  None.

Analysis:  The Bulldogs are in good shape heading into conference play, combining a nice array of victories with the fact there is nothing resembling a bad loss in there.  Eight of the Bulldogs' 10 losses are to teams either ranked in the Top 25 or receiving votes, and all 10 defeats have come to teams with current winning records.  Fresno State's win over Texas (18-8 overall, 3-0 in the Big 12) stands out as the best non-conference victory in the Mountain West at this point.  A 16-4 rout of Oklahoma State continues to look better as the Cowgirls have won eight of their past nine games.  The Bulldogs also own the MW's most under-appreciated quality win:  a 3-2 victory over a Cal State Northridge team off to its best start in two decades at 21-8 overall.  Not shown here is a Bulldog win over Stanford.  While the Cardinal stands at .500 (14-14), any win over the Pac-12 must be considered a quality win.  A big plus for Trisha Ford's team:  It is the conference's only team not to be run-ruled this year, and the 'Dogs have kept the nation's top teams in check, falling just 4-1 to then-No. 1 Florida and 3-0 to 2nd-ranked Oregon.  Fresno State has missed a few opportunities for big wins that would've practically labeled the Bulldogs an NCAA lock.  They lost a 3-run lead in a loss to Cal and were tied late with 15th-ranked Minnesota in a 3-1 defeat.  To summarize though, the quality schedule and quality wins are there for a possible NCAA at-large berth, provided Fresno State doesn't win the Mountain West title outright.  No team, the Bulldogs included, should want to leave that decision in the hands of the NCAA selection committee, however.

San Jose State (19-11)

Wins over teams with current winning records:  3 (BYU, Idaho State, San Diego).
Losses to teams with current losing records: None.

Analysis:  The Spartans enter conference play with 19 wins, but with a lack of quality victories.  The win over a 17-7 BYU team came on the first day of the 2015 season and will likely end up being San Jose State's top non-conference win of the season.  The Spartans' only other wins over teams with current winning records came against Idaho State (16-14) and San Diego (14-12).  San Jose State has one win this season over a team from a Power 5 conference -- and that victory is over Iowa, which is now just 8-20 overall.  In many ways, San Jose State has won the games most people thought the Spartans would win, and lost the games most predicted they would lose.  SJSU has played an overall quality schedule, but lacking the bite of some other teams in the conference.  Hurting SJSU are five run-rule losses, including a surprising 14-0, five-inning loss to New Mexico State of the WAC.  Arizona, Hawai'i, Florida and Michigan have all handed the Spartans run-rule defeats this year.  To summarize, the overall schedule is certainly better than average, but the lack of quality non-conference wins is a concern should San Jose State need a potential NCAA at-large bid.

San Diego State (17-11)

Wins over teams with current winning records:  7 (Purdue twice, Idaho State, Iowa State, North Dakota St., Oregon State, Cal State Fullerton).
Losses to teams with current losing records:  1 (UConn).

Analysis:  The Aztecs suffered their only truly bad loss of the season yesterday, falling at home 11-4 to UConn (8-13).  But there are other potential signs of worry related to a possible NCAA at-large bid this time around if the Aztecs should need one.  Unlike in seasons past, SDSU hasn't always been competitive against quality opposition.  There's a 10-0 (five inning) run-rule loss to a Nebraska team that has been one of the nation's biggest disappointments.  The Huskers began the season ranked 18th in the country, but currently stand at .500 overall.  The Aztecs were outscored 42-4 in run-rule losses to Michigan, Oklahoma, Baylor and Nebraska.  The best win for SDSU came over Oregon State, which is currently 19-9 overall.  The Aztecs will even get two more chances to beat the Beavers, who make a return trip to San Diego at the end of the regular season.  Unlike most other MW teams, San Diego State gets numerous chances for quality victories on its home field.  Wins over Cal State Fullerton (20-12) and North Dakota State (18-5) will carry weight.  Luckily for the Aztecs, it's doubtful the NCAA selection committee has the time to look into box scores and discover that NDSU went the distance with freshman pitcher Jacquelyn Sertic in that game rather than senior ace Krista Meinke (14-2), or that the Titans, for a portion of that game, went with a first-time pitcher who'd been used almost exclusively as a pinch runner this season.  The Aztecs cleverly scheduled two games against a Purdue team that will not have to face either Michigan or Ohio State in Big Ten play this season due to that conference's rotating schedule.  By missing six games (two 3-game series) versus those two powers, Purdue has an outstanding chance at a high finish in Big Ten play and a glossy overall record to help its own RPI, and, in turn, the Aztecs'.  The same situation goes for Iowa State.  SDSU owns a win over a Cyclones team that looks great on paper due to ISU's 16-9 overall record.  A closer look reveals Iowa State's record was built upon playing -- and beating -- the likes of South Dakota State (twice), Incarnate Word, SE Louisiana, Grand Canyon, University of North Dakota, Boston U., Coastal Carolina (twice), St. Bonaventure, etc.  For scheduling gurus and those who pay close attention and dissect results (a la the NCAA men's basketball selection committee this season when it shunned Colorado State), this is an interesting situation.  Read this excellent article by Matt L. Stephens at The Coloradoan for more on the subject and how it relates to the NCAA Tournament selection process. Luckily for SDSU, the NCAA committee in softball in recent seasons has gone exclusively with the RPI.  We'll see what happens this year.

Colorado State (18-13)

Wins over teams with current winning records:  None.
Losses to teams with current losing records:  1 (UTEP).

Analysis:  The term "paper tiger" could apply here.  The Rams have 18 wins, just one shy of the most by a Mountain West team in non-conference play.  Not a single one of those wins, however, has come against a team that owns a winning record through games of March 17.  That's not to say Colorado State hasn't beaten anyone of note.  The Rams have a win over Texas Tech, which currently stands at .500.  The Red Raiders, though, often play one of the worst non-conference schedules in the nation among power 5 conference teams and this year is no different.  CSU's best wins this season have come over the likes of middling teams like Drake and Texas-Arlington, both of whom sit at .500.  Colorado State has played some of the country's worst teams.  Two wins have come over an IPFW team that currently stands at 0-18.  Two other wins came over Valparaiso, whose 6-14 record doesn't seem all that awful until you realize one-third of Valpo's wins (2 of 6) have come over IPFW.  Two more wins by CSU came over Iona, which has lost 11 of 13 games this season and competes in one of the country's lowest-rated conferences, the Metro Atlantic.  It's not all terrible news for Colorado State, even though it may seem that way.  The Rams have taken on some good competition, notably Texas twice, Arizona, Minnesota, Arizona State and Cal State Northridge.  CSU has lost all of those games, however.  The loss to UTEP stands out as a truly bad one.  The Miners are 8-22 overall.

New Mexico (16-12)

Wins over teams with current winning records: 3 (Rutgers, San Diego, Charleston).
Losses to teams with current losing records:  6 (Utah Valley, Seattle, Illinois, Georgia Southern twice, Cal State Bakersfield)

Analysis:  The Lobos have been very up and down this season.  And that's an improvement from a year ago when they were almost exclusively down.  Predicted to finish last in the Mountain West during the preseason, UNM has been a pleasant surprise for the most part.  There are, however, some troubling losses, but let's first focus on the positive.  New Mexico split a pair with a Rutgers team that looks fairly solid.  A true road win at the College of Charleston is better than it seems to the casual observer.  And a win over USD came on the same weekend that the Toreros pulled an upset of nationally-ranked Arizona State in Tempe.  So it's safe to say that UNM is improved this season and is not a guaranteed win for any opponent.  Now the downside:  Being swept in a doubleheader by Georgia Southern is a huge disappointment.  The Eagles have won just six of 25 games this season and two came over the Lobos.  Losing at home in Albuquerque to Cal State Bakersfield is a tough pill to swallow, and losses to Utah Valley and Seattle can't be considered anything other than disappointing.  Overall, the schedule has been lackluster, but with so little expected of UNM entering this season, one can hardly blame New Mexico for easing the slate a bit.  The team's confidence appears to have risen this season and that's a good thing in the long run.

UNLV (14-14)

Wins over teams with current winning records:  5 (Louisville, Northwestern, Idaho State, LA-Monroe, Iowa State.)
Losses to teams with current losing records:  1 (UConn).

Analysis:  The Rebels have played an impressive schedule, albeit mostly at home with four different tournaments being hosted in Las Vegas.  It was only in the last week, with UNLV's top two pitchers being unavailable, that the Rebels began to slip.  Northwestern has moved a game above .500 at 11-10 overall, and Louisville is 13-7.  The Rebels beat both in Las Vegas and those victories could carry some weight as the season goes along.  UNLV must be careful to remain over .500 itself, though, and not fall too far back in the Mountain West race if it hopes to have any NCAA at-large potential in May.  A 3-game road series at Cal looms big in April.  UNLV has won just two games away from home this season, standing at 2-9 away from Eller Media Stadium.  There are several quality losses (Washington, Minnesota, Notre Dame, etc.), and some missed chances as well.  The Rebels lost a pair to New Mexico State (both times by shutout) and were also shut out by the likes of Weber State.

Nevada (9-18)

Wins over teams with current winning records:  3 (Fordham, Idaho State, Cal State Fullerton).
Losses to teams with current losing records:  7 (Portland State, Seattle, Long Beach State, Syracuse, Northern Colorado twice, Southern Illinois)

Analysis:  The Wolf Pack have three wins this season over teams that currently possess winning records.  Only one of those -- a March 8 victory to salvage the final game of a 3-game series with Idaho State -- occurred over the past month.  The losses to Long Beach State and Syracuse appear worse than they really are.  Both are quality teams, but have struggled.  The 49ers, in particular, have a losing record because of a difficult schedule.  There are mystifying losses, however.  Losing twice to Northern Colorado is bad, especially when one considers the Bears have won a total of just five games this season.  Since beating Nevada in back-to-back games on February 27 and 28, Northern Colorado is winless. 

Utah State (7-16)

Wins over teams with current winning records: 2 (Michigan State, Weber State).
Losses to teams with current losing records: 5 (South Dakota State twice, Long Beach State twice, Montana)

Analysis:  The Aggies have been a disappointment this season -- moreso by us than the conference coaches, who selected Utah State to finish eighth in the preseason.  We expected more and forecast Steve Johnson's club to be the Mountain West's most improved team in 2015.  That hasn't been the case so far.  The schedule has been better than some other teams in the conference, but USU hasn't done too much with it.  The season started off on the wrong foot with two losses to woeful South Dakota State at the Cyclone Indoor Invitational in Ames.  We blame it on playing indoors.  The Jackrabbits have won just three games since that initial weekend in early February when they beat Utah State twice.  There have been signs of progress in spurts, and this weekend's series with New Mexico will tell us which of those two teams will play a role in determining the Mountain West title and which one won't.

Boise State (8-22)

Wins over teams with current winning records:  1 (Weber State).
Losses to teams with current losing records:  9 (Seton Hall, North Texas, Long Beach State, Portland State, Seattle, St. Mary's, DePaul, Cal State Bakersfield twice).

Analysis:  The fall has been swift for the Broncos.  Boise State entered the final weekend of the 2014 season with a 30-19 overall record and looking for a Mountain West title and NCAA berth.  This year, the Broncos will enter conference play already with 22 losses and a 7-game losing streak.  There are no real wins of note so far, but there are many painful defeats.  Boise State has been on the verge of wins this season and fallen apart right at the end with heartbreaking loss after heartbreaking loss.  One gets the feeling that things could turn around at any moment, but it hasn't happened yet.  The Broncos are 10 shy of the school record for most losses in a season (32, set in 2010).