The college softball regular season is complete and this week is conference tournament weekend, which is do or die for mid-majors and bubble teams, while it is more about positioning for the top tier squads. Luckily, our beloved Michigan Wolverines fall into the latter category as it pertains to the NCAA Tournament after winning the Big Ten Regular season crown and securing the #1 seed in the B1G Tournament yesterday. Since there isn’t a very established field of softball bracketology to see where Michigan is in position to end up, I decided to throw this piece together using my own knowledge and conjectures fused with insight from some of the only people who attempt to forecast what the NCAA Softball Tournament field will look like.
How the bracket process works
RPI. That’s the name of the game. There isn’t a fancy method to the madness or anything like that, it’s basically just RPI. Last season, the teams that got the top 16 seeds in the tournament were teams 1-13, 15-17 in RPI on selection sunday. Also last year, the top 37 teams in RPI on selection sunday all got into the field. So there’s not a lot of fancy stuff to this, no Q1 and Q2 wins or adjustments for various efficiency factors like basketball. The bracket isn’t a direct translation to RPI, as the SEC and PAC-12 generally get bumped up, as do big name schools (like say, Michigan), while the smaller schools (Minnesota in 2017) from less powerful conferences can sometimes get snubbed from regional hosting. Still, following RPI is the easiest way to get an idea of the bracket and what teams will be in it.
Where things stand now
The RPI from this weekend is now out and Michigan stands exactly 16th, so right on the edge. Using last season’s method, Michigan would probably get a regional if the tourney started today. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. The top 7 squads in RPI (Oklahoma, Washington, UCLA, Arizona, Florida St., Texas, and Alabama) are all locks to host a regional and I have to think almost all of those 7 will be the top 7 seeds, in position to host super regionals. LSU at 9 and Florida at 10 are also probably locks due to the “Being in the SEC” factor, as well as the fact that they are two well established national programs. So those 9 teams feel like they will all get regionals regardless of what happens this weekend. That’s where things get interesting.
If you followed Michigan softball this year, which I assume everyone who took a small chunk out of their day to read this article did, you know that this was a historically competitive Big Ten, and that registers in RPI. Minnesota stands at #8 in RPI and Northwestern at #11 and if you’re a Gopher fan you have to feel some element of deja vu to 2017, when Minnesota was a top 12 RPI team yet were the only squad to get snubbed from regional hosting. I think Minnesota will get one this year though, mostly because they loaded up their non-conference schedule this year. They played Ole Miss, FSU, Tennessee, Bama (2x), Drake (2x), Arizona, James Madison, Texas (3x), USF (2x), and Florida. Woof. And that’s in addition to taking two out-of-three from Northwestern this past weekend. I think this is the year they get a regional, regardless of how they do this weekend. Northwestern I’m less sure about, and I almost feel like Michigan and Northwestern are competing for one spot as regional hosts heading into Bloomington this weekend.
Beyond that, Oklahoma St and Tennessee at 12 and 13 have to like their chances at hosting a regional if they can put together a good conference tourney performance given their status as major conference teams. James Madison sits at 14 and in a peculiar position as a perennially solid softball school that has hosted regionals before but also could easily be bumped for a bigger name like an SEC team (Ole Miss at 17) or Michigan. Kentucky, as an SEC team, is at 15 and are in a similar boat to Tennessee. The group of teams on the outside looking in include a bunch of SEC teams (Ole Miss 17, South Carolina 20, Auburn 21, Arkansas 22), Louisiana (a similar program as James Madison) and Texas Tech from the Big 12. Unless something major changes over the weekend, these 22 teams are the only ones I see in contention for the top 16.
The other part of bracketology is checking in on the teams that are on the edge of making the tournament, as well as other squads Michigan faced. The following former Michigan opponents are in the top 37 and in good position to make the tourney: Washington, UCLA, Arizona, LSU, Florida, James Madison, Stanford, Arizona St., North Carolina, USF, Louisville, and Ohio State. Of those teams, only Louisville and OSU enter the weekend in true bubble territory. Wisconsin, who Michigan could play in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, is 38th, right on the edge. Indiana is 48th and fading and would need a big weekend to have a shot at the tournament, while Illinois is 44th and only slightly better. Since Michigan could potentially play Illinois and OSU/Wisconsin in the tournament, it’s fair to say that the Wolverines will be encountering some hungry teams this weekend and need to be careful.
The Final Word for Michigan
Michigan’s in a pretty big good spot entering the weekend. They’re in the RPI Top 16, which is what you want, and will only go up if they have a good weekend, especially with the chance to bank as many as three RPI Top 50 wins in Bloomington. Regardless, if Michigan beats one of OSU/Wisconsin and then knocks off either Minnesota/Northwestern in the title game, Michigan fans can feel pretty good about Selection Sunday. A title game loss would still put Michigan firmly in contention. But another early exit? Then things get dicey.
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