Leave no doubt.
That was Jay Johnson’s biggest takeaway after his Arizona Wildcats were left out of the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year.
If you leave no doubt – by winning 40 games or claiming a conference championship — you’re not subject to the whims of the NCAA Selection Committee. Or hurt by being in the Pac-12, which should be an asset but sometimes isn’t because of the league’s minimal national TV exposure and lack of a postseason tournament.
“If you don’t know that you’re in the tournament when you go to bed the night before, you’re not in the tournament,” Johnson said Monday.
“If you’re relying on the events of the last day which you cannot control — meaning conference-tournament finals — you’re probably not in a good position. That’s more clear now than ever.
“I do think we’re one of the 33 best at-large teams. A lot of people know that. I’ve had four Pac-12 coaches text me, going, ‘C’mon, man. Is this really where we’re at?’ But it is where we’re at.
“We’re not going to make any excuses about that. We lost some games this year that we have not lost here before, and that made a difference.”
Johnson thought his team had a strong case after a mad dash to the finish line. Arizona concluded the season with a 10-game winning streak and won 13 of its last 14 to end up at 32-24, 15-14 in the Pac-12. The Wildcats’ RPI, which fell to 156 at one point, landed at 49.
Here’s Arizona coach Jay Johnson’s reaction to the Wildcats not making the tournament: pic.twitter.com/bnucnVXQjG— Michael Lev (@MichaelJLev) May 27, 2019
But Arizona’s 3-16 record against top-50 RPI teams proved to be a deal-breaker. Top-50 victories seemed to be a significant metric for the selection committee this year. The committee rewarded Oregon State (RPI of 20) and Ole Miss (22) with top-16 seeds thanks in large measure to their wins against the top 50 — 16 and 20, respectively.
Another bubble team that didn’t make it, BYU, had only two games against top-50 teams and lost both. The Cougars were left out despite going 36-17 and winning the West Coast Conference regular-season title.
Arizona had plenty of chances. On six occasions against top-50 opponents – twice apiece against UCLA and Arizona State, and once against Cal and Oregon State — the Wildcats were tied or had the lead entering or in the eighth inning. They lost all six.
The Bruins were the No. 1 team in the nation at the time, and they earned the No. 1 national seed in this year’s tournament.
“If you win two of those, we’re a 2-seed; we’re not even talking about this,” Johnson said. “If you win one of them, we’re probably in the tournament. I know our players understand that.”
As Johnson noted, the Wildcats were in that position even though they “weren’t really playing that great yet.” They were an unfinished product, struggling on the mound and in the field.
Despite significant improvement in both areas, Arizona finished next to last in the Pac-12 with a 6.21 ERA. The Wildcats ranked last with a .962 fielding percentage.
Those issues undermined an offense that led the league in numerous categories despite injuries to center fielder Matt Fraizer (.412 batting average) and catcher-first baseman Matthew Dyer (.393). Arizona averaged 9.8 runs per game and scored 10 or more runs 25 times.
“I don’t think it’s really a secret: We need to pitch better,” Johnson said. “We lost some midweek games that we have not lost since I was the coach here (because of that). You could point to two or three or four of those that probably would have made the difference.
“A lot of the solution is with the next recruiting class coming in. There’s 10 or 11 pitchers in there, highly accomplished pitchers. We have to obviously get through next week’s draft in the best shape that we can.”
Among non-seniors, the only prominent players certain to leave are infielders Nick Quintana and Cameron Cannon. Both are expected to be selected no later than the second day of the MLB draft, which begins next Monday. Several other situations regarding current and incoming players remain up in the air.
That will be Johnson’s main focus over the next week. On Monday, he was still trying to come to grips with Arizona’s exclusion from the field of 64.
A year ago, the Wildcats were among the first four out. They finished with a sub-.500 record in the Pac-12 (14-16), and that seemed to be a critical factor.
This year, four teams with under-.500 marks in league play received at-large berths. Three were from the SEC — Tennessee, Auburn and Florida — and all had top-27 RPIs. The other was TCU, whose inclusion baffled NCAA baseball experts.
The Horned Frogs had an RPI of 59 and an 11-13 record in the Big 12. As Aaron Fitt wrote for D1Baseball.com: “We’ve had a few teams get in before with RPIs in that range, but none with losing conference records.”
Ray Tanner, the chair of the selection committee, rationalized the TCU pick by noting its top-50 wins (12) and the fact that the Horned Frogs “made a pretty deep run in the Big 12 Tournament.” TCU went 3-2 in its conference tourney. Tanner said conference-tournament participation matters, even if it doesn’t result in an automatic bid.
“Coaches have reached out to me,” Tanner told reporters, “and they ask, ‘How important are these games late?’ Well, they could affect you. They might not affect you. But if you play a game, it counts.”
The Pac-12 does not conduct a postseason tournament. Johnson said Boyd Nation, who runs the college-baseball website Boyd’s World, once gave a presentation to Pac-12 coaches about the merits of conference tournaments. His conclusion: They wouldn’t have benefited the league.
After the past two seasons ended in disappointment, Johnson was left wondering whether the Pac-12 should reconsider its stance.
“I want to do whatever’s best to give our program the best chance to be in the NCAA Tournament,” Johnson said. “If that’s what we need to do, I’m 100 percent behind it. I want to be playing baseball (this) week.”
- Freshman right-hander Bryce Collins had Tommy John surgery last week and will miss the 2020 season. Collins had an 0-2 record and a 5.24 ERA in seven appearances this year.
- Senior Justin Wylie was named Pac-12 Player of the Week. Wylie went 8 for 12 with three home runs, six runs scored and seven RBIs during UA’s three-game sweep at Washington State.
- Arizona scored eight or more runs 32 times and had a 27-5 record in those games. The Wildcats were 1-15 when they scored five or fewer runs. They were 21-3 when their opponents scored between four and seven runs.