Fresh off winning the regular-season Mountain West softball championship and a berth in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, Fresno State reached season-highs in the polls and the Ratings Percentage Index today.
First, the all-important RPI, a tool that weighs heavily (too heavily, many people think) in the minds of the NCAA selection committee that determines the 16 regional host sites and seedings in the 64-team field. After being No. 18 for the past two weeks, the Bulldogs climbed a spot to No. 17, just one spot below their highest ranking since the RPI was introduced as a tool for inclusion in the NCAA Tournament.
Fresno State is 17th in the current RPI, exactly where it stood in the final RPI of 2008, when it last hosted an NCAA regional. On Selection Sunday of that year, the Bulldogs were 16th.
And the NCAA softball committee, in recent years, has practically gone verbatim with the RPI when choosing regional hosts. Long gone are the days when BYU (then a Mountain West member) was selected to host regionals with RPIs of 40 (2006 season) and 46 (2007 season).
It is much more stringent these days. And while the NCAA says the RPI is supposed to be merely one factor (along with strength of schedule, location of games, quality wins and losses, possible injuries, how a team is playing down the stretch, etc.) in determining a regional host, the committee's actions say otherwise. We shall see.
Things that make Fresno State an attractive host site: Location (it's convenient, especially when there are numerous other west coast teams that will qualify for the NCAA Tournament), stadium (the Bulldogs have one of the premier facilities in the country, with permanent, chairback seating for more than 3,000, along with an outfield berm that can accommodate an overflow crowd), fan base (annually one of the country's top 10 in attendance, Fresno State would have the ability to create a true playoff atmosphere that would make it exciting for fans, teams and media, alike).
The Bulldogs are actually in a win-win situation. A homefield advantage would be nice, but Fresno State has actually played just as well -- and perhaps even better -- away from home. Their run production, team batting average, and home run totals are tremendously higher away from Margie Wright Diamond. Fresno State has hit eight home runs at home this season, for example. The Bulldogs have hit a whopping 43 on the road. That's a huge difference, and Fresno State hits a lot of long flyball outs at home, where the wind traditionally blows in pretty heavily from center field.
With the 'Dogs now guaranteed an NCAA bid, will the Mountain West send two to the Big Dance for a second year in a row? It seems doubtful at this point, but San Diego State (56th) and San Jose State (68th) still have some hope. For SJSU, the goal is to maintain a second-place finish in the MW standings and hope for the best. The Spartans have played one of the tougher schedules in the country, and their strength of schedule was 37th of 295 NCAA Division I teams in the latest NCAA stats.
San Diego State, meanwhile, has the better RPI and more quality wins than SJSU, but will likely finish below the Spartans in the final MW standings. Would the NCAA selection committee actually take a third- or fourth-place finisher from the Mountain West? It seems unlikely this season. SDSU has an RPI Top 25 win (Texas A&M) to its credit, along with wins over likely NCAA qualifiers Cal and BYU. But the Aztecs are just 16-17 vs. the RPI top 150 in the NCAA's latest Nitty Gritty report out this week. It looks as though San Diego State will see its streak of NCAA Tournament appearances end at eight this season even if the Aztecs win their final six games to finish 32-20. However, it could be a close call if SDSU is able to win its final six .
In the human polls this week, Fresno State is at its season-best rankings in all of them. In the College Sports Madness Top 25, the Bulldogs are 16th, up one spot from last week. In the ESPN.com/USA Softball rankings, Fresno State moved up three spots to No. 18, reaching its peak in both ranking and vote totals. In the USA Today/NFCA coaches poll, the Bulldogs held at No. 20 for the third week in a row, but reached their highest vote total of the year (209 votes).
The coaches poll is the biggest oddity. Fresno State has reached the No. 20 spot four different weeks this season, but has never been ranked in the teens. Notre Dame, just above the Bulldogs at No. 19 last week, held at No. 19 despite a pair of losses to unranked teams last week. Arizona State, a team that is 3-15 in its conference and has lost 12 straight games, is somehow, incredulously, receiving Top 25 votes in the coaches poll.
Mountain West RPIs this week
Fresno State - 17
San Diego State - 56
San Jose State - 68