Heels on Bubble Watch

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – While the Tar Heels are watching the ACC Baseball Tournament from their dorm rooms this week, the possibility for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament has this North Carolina program preparing for another run at Omaha.

At first glance, it may seem absurd that a team that was unable to qualify for its own conference tournament would be given an invite to the national championship tournament. Even North Carolina head coach Mike Fox expressed a similar belief last week, telling Inside Carolina Radio , "I don't think we have a chance if we don't make the ACC Tournament… I'm hoping I'm wrong."

The 12th-year UNC head coach may get his wish. While North Carolina's absence in Greensboro this weekend will no doubt hurt the program's odds of earning an at-large bid, that detail is only one of a handful of factors that the NCAA baseball selection committee will consider in setting the 64-team field.

"Not making your conference tournament is one of the factors that will be considered," Big South Conference Commissioner and NCAA Division I Baseball Committee member Kyle Kallander told IC on Wednesday afternoon. "Different people have different views on that as far as how heavy that should be weighed. I think that's one factor, but I also think there's a lot of other things to be considered, especially if it's a team that has played a good schedule, has played well and finished strong. For me, it's not something that automatically disqualifies somebody because they didn't make their conference tournament."

The 2010 Division I Baseball Championship Handbook outlines the selection criteria for determining at-large bids as follows:

Regular-season conference standings and/or conference postseason competition shall be considered by the committee when selecting at-large teams. The committee may consider comparing data of individual teams, including, but not limited to, overall record, Division I record, overall RPI rank, nonconference record and RPI rank, conference regular-season record and conference tournament results, road record and RPI, last 15 games' record, its record against teams ranked 1-25, 26-50, 51-100, 101-150 and below 150 in the RPI, head-to-head record, common opponents' record and input from regional advisory committees.
"There's a reason it's an exhaustive list because we do look at all of that," Kallander said.

North Carolina's resume includes both highlights and eyesores, similar to most bubble teams. The Tar Heels finished with a 36-20 overall record, but posted a 14-16 ACC mark that left them out of the conference tournament, which only invites the league's top eight programs. UNC's final regular season Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) rank stands at 20th nationally, but the boys in blue managed just four wins against 17 top-25 RPI opponents. And while North Carolina's strength of schedule ranks 15th nationally, the program struggled on the road, posting a 7-11 record.

Also helping the Tar Heels is a strong finish, winning 12 of their final 15 games.

"Baseball is such a unique sport in that your weekend games a lot of times are completely different than your weekday games and so you've got to take that into consideration," Kallander said. "You've got to take into consideration if you're playing at home or playing on the road, and you've got to take into consideration how you're playing in the early part of a long season as opposed to the end. It's a real challenge to try to compare somebody in the ACC with somebody in the Pac-10, for example, because you don't get a lot of crossover."

The RPI, a tool that combines a team's Division I winning percentage, opponents' success and opponents' strength of schedule, tends to be overvalued by most fans and media members in the selection process of both basketball and baseball collegiate tournaments.

"It's just one factor we look at," Kallander said. "The RPI tends to try to standardize things based on your schedule and your winning percentage, but it has its flaws as everything else does. So you look at that, but you've got to understand how it's made up and understand what its flaws are, and just use it as one tool."

In order to help the 10-person national committee deliver a deserving 34-team at-large field, the NCAA has created eight regional advisory committees that each include five-to-seven representatives from each area, including one current head coach. North Carolina is evaluated by the Atlantic Region committee, which includes Kallander (vice chair) and Virginia Tech head coach Pete Hughes.

The baseball committee has held three teleconferences dating back to Apr. 20 for evaluation purposes and to receive input from the regional committees. The 10-man selection team will conduct in-person strategy sessions beginning on Friday night that will likely last until ESPN announces the field at 12:30pm on Monday.

While a seemingly infinite number of variables will play out this week in conference tournaments across the country, North Carolina appears to be in solid position to earn an at-large bid. Baseball America, ESPN.com and YahooSports.com all project the Tar Heels as a No. 3 regional seed in the NCAAs, with possible destinations ranging from Myrtle Beach, S.C. to Norwich, Conn.

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