The Mountain West Conference's road to the NCAA softball tournament will go through California this year. Only three teams remain eligible for the automatic postseason bid: San Jose State (15-6 MW), San Diego State (13-8), and Fresno State (12-8).
While there is the possibility of a tie for first place, the conference allows only one automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Unless the selection committee awards any at-large bids, "co-champions" will be little more than a paper designation. Specifically, rule 10.4.2 in the 2016-17 Mountain West handbook addresses tiebreakers:
10.4.2 Regular Season Champion/Automatic Qualifier Tiebreaker. The regular season champion shall be based on regular season winning percentage in Conference competition. In the case of a two-way tie in the final standings, the automatic qualifier shall be determined as follows:
a. Comparison of head-to-head competition in regular season Conference play;
b. If the two teams split their games during the regular season, each tied team’s record shall be compared against the team occupying the highest position in the standings, continuing down through the standings until one team gains the advantage, thereby gaining the automatic qualifier (When comparing tied teams against positions lower in the standings that are also tied, those lower-tied positions shall be considered a single position for the purposes of comparison.); or
c. The tie shall be broken by a comparison of the two teams’ NCAA RPI (as of the most recent publication). The team with the better NCAA RPI will gain the advantage.
Having been swept last weekend by San Jose State, Utah State concludes its conference slate with a 14-9 record and is no longer in the running for first place.
Normally, Mountain West teams play 24 conference games, with eight three-game series in a round-robin schedule. However, Utah State and Fresno State will finish with only 23 conference games, because their scheduled April 9 game in Logan, Utah was cancelled due to snow. Thus, the best finish Utah State can have would be a half game behind any number of 15-9 teams.
The three remaining teams all have final conference series this coming weekend: San Jose State at UNLV, Fresno State at Colorado State, and San Diego State at Nevada.
Here are the various scenarios for the automatic qualifier:
- San Jose State's easiest path to the title is to finish 17-7 by way of winning (not necessarily sweeping) the UNLV series.
- Due to the tiebreaker rule, a 16-8 record wins San Jose State the title only if San Diego State loses one game to Nevada, as the next bullet point explains.
- San Diego State could win the conference title outright by finishing 16-8 and sweeping Nevada, and if San Jose State goes down to 15-9 by losing all three games to UNLV. Alternatively, should San Jose State also finish 16-8 due to one win over UNLV, San Diego State wins the tiebreaker due to winning the season series against San Jose State.
- The same applies if San Diego State were to finish 15-9 due to one loss to Nevada, and San Jose State also finished 15-9, and if Fresno State has another loss.
- Fresno State could win the title outright finishing 15-8 from sweeping Colorado State, and San Jose State finishing 15-9 due to being swept by UNLV, and San Diego State getting a ninth conference loss. This half-game advantage, of course, would result from the April 9 snow-out.
- Because of the tiebreaker rule, even if Nevada (12-9) were to win out, and San Jose State dropped to 15-9, and San Diego State and Fresno State lose games, San Jose State wins the tiebreaker due to winning the season series over Nevada.
Multiple bids likely
The NCAA's latest RPI report issued on Monday has San Diego State with the conference's top RPI ranking at 40 despite being in second place in the conference standings. Fresno State, at fourth place in the standings, has a 47 ranking. San Jose State, at first place in the standings, is at #51. The Mountain West last had multiple NCAA bids in 2015, when Fresno State won the automatic bid and San Diego State earned an at-large bid with a #39 RPI.
In 2016, the lowest-ranked at-large bid (see also this list of last year's automatic bids and the full bracket) outside the Power Five conferences was the Sun Belt's Texas State at #41. Meanwhile, #44 South Alabama was left out, while three lower-ranked Power Five teams got auto bids: #45 Northwestern, #46 Louisville, and #47 Illinois. Unlike South Alabama, those three teams had wins over top-25 RPI's, a favorable factor for bubble teams.
There is the possibility that if all three contenders win out, Fresno State and San Diego State could get at-large tournament bids for high RPI's and quality wins. Both Fresno State and San Diego State have beaten top-25 teams. In contrast, San Jose State is 0-2 against the top 25 and must win the conference title to enter the NCAA Tournament.
Also, this year will have a second-tier postseason tournament equivalent to basketball's NIT, the National Invitational Softball Championship (NISC). It is open to select teams that did not qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Should any of the three remaining contenders not qualify for the NCAA's, they may be eligible for the NISC. Utah State (RPI #64) is likely to be invited, as could Nevada (#91) and Boise State (#92).