Posted: 12:51 p.m. Thursday, May 23, 2013
By Andy Hutchins
The bubble is a cruel and unforgiving place when it comes to NCAA Tournaments. Teams that sit on the bubble never quite get comfortable; teams that have theirs pop fall to inglorious doom; teams that make it in off the bubble rarely do much in the NCAA Tournament, with stories like VCU's from 2011 very much rare tales. And so Florida baseball's late-season swoon, which seemingly landed it squarely on the bubble, was a ticket to painful uncertainty.
Florida sure is limping toward Selection Monday. Gators lose 6-3 to Aggies - I'm not loving UF's regional chances in light of poor finish.— Aaron Fitt (@aaronfitt) May 22, 2013
Florida's problems started after it put together an impressive 11-1 streak in games including road tests at Mississippi State and Florida State and a home series against South Carolina to get to 25-19 on April 27. The Gators lost all that momentum over the last three weeks, sputtering to a 4-9 close that featured series losses to Auburn and Georgia and a truly dismal showing at LSU. Florida hasn't beaten a team that isn't Florida A&M;, Florida Atlantic, Auburn, or Georgia in May — and it went 4-4 against those teams.
That's spitting the bit by any measure, even without considering that Auburn and Georgia were among the worst teams in the SEC this season, and it's bad enough to make predictions from last week or even this Monday look obsolete.
But there is one great silver lining: The bubble seems to be very soft this year, so soft that Florida might not actually be on it.
Looking around at the few pieces of college baseball bracketology I've seen, Auburn is consistently among the last few teams making the field. This makes some sense: Auburn's got a 33-22 record, but just a 13-17 record against the SEC, despite that series win against Florida. And though Auburn did well to win series from Arkansas and Mississippi State, that's about the only thing on the Tigers' résumé, as their non-conference schedule included such feats as a four-game sweep of Maine and a series win over Eastern Illinois.
For all its faults, Florida has compiled a much better résumé. That sweep of South Carolina, a borderline national seed, is huge, and Florida took games from Vanderbilt, Florida State, Indiana, and Mississippi State, all of which should host regional play. Not even Florida's late-season stretch of softer play could damage its tremendous strength of schedule, which is either No. 1 with a bullet when looking at raw numbers or solidly top-five when adjusting for team strength. Individually, a great strength of schedule might only mean that Florida beat up on bad teams and was woeful against good ones, and a handful of good wins might not cover for a lot of bad nights against bad teams; combined, it's hard to see anything but the profile of an NCAA Tournament team.
Another thing working in Florida's favor is, as usual, the strength of the SEC. Auburn was the No. 10 seed in the SEC Tournament, and bowed out to No. 7 Alabama, but 'Bama is very much in the NCAA Tournament field, and so are the six teams that were seeded ahead of 'Bama, at least four of which should host regionals. Texas A&M; was regarded as dead in the water as recently as a week ago, but the Aggies have been very good in May, going 9-3 and suffering two of those losses at the hands of LSU, and their wins over Florida and Vanderbilt at the SEC Tournament might get them onto the bubble, or even into the NCAA Tournament.
The SEC gets the benefit of the doubt when it comes to college baseball because so many of the best teams in the country play in the SEC, and it helps teams get into the NCAA Tournament on the back end more often than not. So does the ACC's similar status — it just makes a lot more sense to send decent SEC and ACC teams to regionals headed by the other conference's teams because of proximity: Teams from the same conference can't meet in regionals, and No. 2 seeds in regional play are very rarely sent across the country, as NCAA decision-makers are very conscious of costs in a low-revenue sport. That's part of why, of the eight regionals hosted by SEC and ACC teams in 2012 (not including Texas A&M;'s), four had a team from the other conference in them as the No. 2 seed. (That mutual benefit is likely to get more pronounced in the coming years, as Missouri and Texas A&M;, both NCAA Tournament teams in 2012, get better, and as Louisville and Notre Dame help bolster the ACC.)
Given all that, and the obvious logic behind sending Florida two hours up I-75 and I-10 to Florida State for a Tallahassee Regional that is almost assured of happening, I would be surprised if Florida does not make the 2013 NCAA Tournament. The Gators may not stay long, especially if they play as they've been playing of late, but they at least deserve a shot to make a quick exit.