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The Statesman


Mid-Majors: How the NCAA plays favorites in college baseball

A glove and NCAA baseball rest on a ledge before an NCAA super regional game between the Oregon State Beavers and the Kentucky Wildcats on June 9. The NCAA has raised concerns about the role favoritism plays in playoff selections. PHOTO BY JEFF MORELAND/ICON SPORTSWIRE VIA GETTY IMAGES

Throughout each season, teams across the country vie for strong positioning in their individual conferences’ postseason tournaments. In baseball, the winner of each conference tournament secures an automatic bid to the 64-team National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament, which will ultimately end with an eight-team tournament in Omaha, Nebr. called the College World Series.

With the 2024 college sports year winding down, it has become increasingly evident that the NCAA is no stranger to playing favorites for playoff selection.

There are 30 conferences nationally that sponsor baseball, meaning 34 bids are classified as “at-large,” and essentially left in the hands of the NCAA selection committee. Of the 30 conferences, the five holding the most power, money, national attention and talent are referred to as the “Power Five.” However, the talent gap is not as big as the NCAA would have you believe, considering the drastic disparity between the number of playoff teams that the Power Five send as compared to the other 25 leagues, known as “mid-majors.”

The Power Five consists of the Southeastern Conference (SEC), Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Pacific-12 (PAC-12), Big 10 and Big 12. In 2024, they made up around 20% of all of Division I baseball. However, nearly 50% of the postseason tournament was comprised of Power Five schools.

It begs the question: is the skill gap really that big or are we seeing favoritism on the biggest scale of amateur sports?

The answer to this question, in my opinion, is obvious. It is abundantly clear that the NCAA plays favorites. Throughout the history of college athletics, a mid-major team making a deep run and upending the sports world has been seen time and time again. Over a six year stretch starting in 2003, three mid-majors won the College World Series as Rice University (2003), California State University Fullerton (2004) and California State University Fresno (2008) each hoisted the trophy. In 2016, Coastal Carolina University shocked the world by winning the entire tournament and more recently, Oral Roberts University punched its ticket to Omaha in 2023. Nonetheless, the NCAA refuses to select more than seemingly the bare minimum of mid-major teams in favor of an absurd amount of Power Five’s.

Stony Brook University was on the wrong side of this issue back in 2011. Then playing in the America East conference, the Seawolves posted their best season in the school’s history. They ran away with the conference title in the regular season by going 22-2 in the America East playoffs and 42-12 overall. Unfortunately, they ran out of gas in the conference tournament and were upset by the University at Albany and the University of Maine. 

While Stony Brook was unable to grab an automatic bid, one would think that a winning percentage nearing .800 would be good enough to get one of the 34 at-large selections. They would be wrong. The Seawolves were turned away by the selection committee, only to return the next year with a vengeance. After losing its best pitcher — Nick Tropeano — to the MLB Draft, Stony Brook registered an even better regular season in 2012 before steamrolling through the American East tournament. The Seawolves rode this wave into the NCAA tournament by upsetting a pair of Power Five teams — the University of Miami and Louisiana State University (LSU) — to secure their trip to the College World Series, showing the incredible might of a small mid-major from Long Island.

A decade later, Stony Brook announced a switch from the America East to the Colonial — now Coastal — Athletic Association (CAA).

Stony Brook Athletic Director Shawn Heilbron expressed the motives behind the move.

“Moving to the CAA was really about an elevated level of competition, it was about an increased exposure for the university,” Heilbron said in an interview with The Statesman. “We’re with schools that we feel very comfortable being aligned with, but certainly you know that you’re moving to a different echelon when it comes to competitive success.”

Another big implication of the conference switch was the increased rating percentage index (RPI), which is a statistic used by the NCAA that allows schools in different conferences to be ranked against one another based on strength of schedule. While the America East historically ranked towards the bottom of the country in RPI, the CAA has been a consistent top-10 conference over the past ten years. 

While boasting three teams from the top 50 in the final RPI charts, the CAA only sent the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) — the conference tournament winner — to the 2024 NCAA Tournament.

After securing its spot in the tournament, UNCW head coach Randy Hood was adamant that the CAA should be sending multiple teams even before the selection show on May 27. 

“There’s a lot of talk in our league about us, Charleston, Northeastern …” Hood said in an interview with FloBaseball. “And rightfully so … our league deserves multiple bids.”

Unfortunately for Hood and the CAA as a whole, this wish was not granted as neither Northeastern University nor the College of Charleston heard its name called during the show. 

The case for Northeastern was a murky one. It put together a tremendous regular season with a 38-17 record, finishing third in the CAA. In the process, they took down the University of Arizona, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Connecticut, all of whom found themselves in the NCAA field of 64. By season’s end, Northeastern’s RPI ranked 35th in the country. However, they were early exits in the conference tournament, which complicated their case.

On the contrary, Charleston was arguably the biggest snub in the country. The Cougars spent much of the season trailing UNCW in the CAA standings, overtook them late and won the regular season. In all, they went 41-14, including a 21-5 league record and took down the University of Pennsylvania and Wofford College, who both made it into the tournament. Charleston’s RPI was slightly lower than Northeastern’s due to a marginally easier schedule but was still comfortably in the top 50 at 42. 

In the aftermath of the decision to leave the Cougars out, head coach Chad Holbrook did not hold back on the committee.

“It’s a shame that we win 28 of our last 33 games, we win our league over as two seed, and we don’t get a bid,” Holbrook said in an interview with FOX Carolina News. “I can’t wrap my brain around it … it’s baffling to me. If I get reprimanded for any of these comments, for falling on the sword for our players, then so be it.”

The disappointed sentiment extended into the league office as CAA Commissioner Joe D’Antonio shared an expectation to see multiple teams from his conference make the NCAA tournament while also mentioning the unpredictability of the selection process.

“What we know is that those three schools [UNCW, Charleston, Northeastern] had very good years and had resumes that we thought were tournament worthy,” D’Antonio said in an interview with The Statesman. “Once these things go to the committee it’s very much out of our hands … some years it works out, unfortunately there are other years that it doesn’t.”

Among the teams that were selected in 2024 in place of Charleston and Northeastern, many of them fall under the Power Five distinction.

Now for the “bubble teams,” which are considered to be the last few selected into the tournament. The 2024 selection committee featured 10 standing athletic directors from schools around the country. Of the 10, three are from schools that finished on the fringes of tournament-worthiness and still got in. 

Coastal Carolina, while a mid-major, snuck in despite finishing seventh in the Sun Belt Conference and sitting just behind Northeastern on the RPI charts at 36. Their athletic director is a selection committee member.

As for the other two, Indiana University finished 55th in RPI and went 15-9 in the Big 10 but nonetheless made the field and Kansas State University finished 45th in RPI and still made it while playing in the Big 12. 

And then we get to the elephant in the room: the SEC, a 14-team league that sent 11 of its members to the tournament. 

While RPI favors the conference, here is a shocking statistic: of the 33 mid-major bids this year, 25 of them were automatic. This means that there were only eight at-large bids in the country among mid-majors. If you remove the one automatic bid in the SEC, that leaves you with 10 at-large bids in one conference alone, more than an entire country’s worth of mid-major bids.

Upon further examination, it is not hard to see the deeper problems. Charleston won over 80% of the games it played within its conference, all the while five SEC schools were selected with sub-.500 conference records. The conference skill gap may exist but to such an extreme extent?

The University of Florida, Vanderbilt University, the University of South Carolina, the University of Alabama and LSU were all sent to the tournament with 13-17 records, a stark contrast to Charleston and Northeastern’s CAA totals.

As for some other Power Five representatives, the University of Texas, a member of the Big 12, ended its season 47th nationally in RPI and still made the tournament. The University of Illinois slotted in right behind the Texas Longhorns at 48th and was selected in the Big 10. The aforementioned Georgia Tech who lost to Northeastern earlier this season finished 49th and made the tournament as a member of the ACC and, finally, the University of Oregon finished at 52nd while playing in the PAC-12 and still moved on. 

All four of the Power Five schools mentioned above finished below Charleston and Northeastern in RPI and had significantly worse records in their respective conferences. Northeastern was the highest mid-major to be excluded from the tournament entirely and the second-highest-ranked school in general to miss the NCAA bracket. 

Another point to consider is that all of the schools mentioned above were top 64 in RPI, meaning that in a perfect world, they should have all been in. However, there are schools such as Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Evansville, Army West Point and High Point University that were not top-64 teams but had automatic bids to the tournament. That just further begs the question, if you cannot assess the bracket entirely by the top 64 teams in RPI because of automatic bids, why not at least get the ones near the top? 

To top it all off, Evansville became the latest mid-major to make a lengthy run as it upset No. 16 East Carolina in the regionals before falling to the top team in the country in Tennessee. It seems as if every year there is a mid-major team making a deep run into the college baseball playoffs, whether it is Stony Brook in 2012, Evansville this year or even Coastal Carolina, who won the College World Series in 2016. In 2002, 42 mid-majors made the tournament compared to just 33 this year. The mid-major has provided college baseball with some of the best Cinderella stories in history, and yet they continue to be denied chances at the hands of the industry giants. 

Come the 2024-2025 academic year, college sports will definitely follow a different landscape due to the PAC-12 dispersion among the other power conferences. Presumably with one less power conference, more love may be given to the mid-majors, but only time will tell. 

Going forward, Heilbron looks forward to seeing how the change will affect the future of mid-majors in major tournaments.

“I think with the PAC-12 collapsing, it’ll be interesting to see what happens there,” Heilbron said. “Now it’s a ‘Power Four’ and you’ve got some really good teams in what was the PAC-12.”

For Holbrook, this is not a pain that will subside with time. 

“I feel like honestly, the committee should send an apology to our program and our school,” Holbrook said. “Our players deserve better. They earned the right to play, to be in the tournament … I’m bewildered.”

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