Previewing the 2011 baseball season, Part II
One of the reasons I always liked the SEC baseball tournament better than, say, the basketball tournament -- well, longtime readers of the site know that I understand very little of what's going on at the basketball tournament. But aside from that, I like the format better because fewer teams get in.
This is a constant in my sports life, from my opposition to adding another wild card in professional baseball to my lukewarm feelings toward even a plus-one and outright opposition to anything that goes much further than that: To me, playoffs and championships are for the teams that perform the best over the season and (largely) don't eke into the tournament and ride a wave of momentum to the title.
Sure, with eight teams going to Hoover every year in a 12-team league, it wasn't like just the cream of the crop was getting in. But at least everyone wasn't going every year. You had to at least prove that you weren't one of the four worst teams to get to play for it all.
Not this year. This year, a team need only clear the bar of the bottom two teams in the conference to get to Hoover. (While the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are guaranteed to the division winners, it's a free-for-all to get the other spots.) The reason for this, according to the SEC, is to kick the tires on a 10-team format before Missouri and Texas A&M join the league for next season.
What has never been entirely clear to me is (a) why the SEC has to change its tournament format in the first place; and (b) why it has to try out the arrangement for a 14-team league when it is not, in fact, a 14-team league.
Part of this has to do with the NCAA baseball tournament. For one thing, teams can use wins in the tournament to boost their record above .500 -- something Georgia did last year -- and get into the regionals. More teams have a chance to do that if more teams are in the tournament Of course, the flip side to that is that a team can drop a couple of games and slip back to or below .500, knocking itself out of the national tourney. And if the lowest-seeded teams end up playing each other, it could be particularly counterproductive.
There might also be some psychological warfare going on here. Getting to the SEC tournament has often been a measure of a conference team's shot at the NCAAs, as long as they clear the .500 level. (Every so often, a team that's not in the SEC field manages to get into the national bracket.) Perhaps the SEC is trying to send a subtle message that it would now like to see 10 bids in the tournament instead of the customary eight.
There's another reason to quibble with the new format: Beginning on Saturday, with the semifinal games, everything goes from double-elimination to single-elimination. Which does away with one of the major incentives for getting into the winner's bracket and staying there throughout the tournament and makes the championship far more susceptible to chance. More than any other sport, baseball is a game where a team can simply have a bad night and give the underdog a win -- and that would have major ramifications in the new tournament format.
Why is the SEC making that little change?
That could help television, which tends to prefer promoting semifinal games as winner-take-all, and rest some weary pitching arms prior to the NCAA Tournament the following week.
Anyone who's seen the care with which college head coaches treat their pitchers' arms know how laughable the latter part of that sentence is.
So, now that we've got the complaints out of the way, who's going to make the tournament?
SURE THINGS: Arkansas, Florida, LSU, South Carolina, Vanderbilt
I'm going to give LSU the benefit doubt after last year's pretty dismal outing. Aside from that, the list here was pretty easy and pretty solid -- three teams that are annually among the best in the league and an Arkansas squad that is seasoned and stacked.
BOOK REFUNDABLE RESERVATIONS: Georgia, Kentucky, Ole Miss
All of these teams have something going for them, and Georgia and Ole Miss should both be pretty good again this year -- something they are a fairly decent portion of the time. Kentucky could be a surprise contender in the East, if everything breaks just the right way. (I'm not saying this is by any means likely; a typhoid epidemic in Gainesville might have to be one of those breaks.)
FIGHTING FOR THE LAST TWO: Alabama, Mississippi State, Tennessee
There are so many minuses on these teams, they almost outweigh the pluses. I'm probably most skeptical about Tennessee, just because I think it's going to take Dave Serrano more than one season to truly turn things around.
SORRY, AUBURN: Auburn
The most daunting statistic is that Auburn is losing 74 percent of its at-bats ... from a team that went 29-29. (Really, it's hard for a respectable baseball team from a power conference not to get to .500 in college.) Things are probably not going to go well in Opelika this season.