LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas’ campaign to host one of the 16 NCAA regionals comes down to playing at least .667 baseball in the final three weeks of the season.
Despite being ranked No. 14 in the latest coaches poll, the Razorbacks (30-15) are on the outside looking in. Their low RPI is working against them and geography is in play.
Second in the SEC West at 13-7, the Razorbacks have a series this weekend at Kentucky (9-12), are home next week against Tennessee (6-15), and finish the regular season on the road vs. Auburn (7-14). A 6-3 record would get Arkansas in the NCAA conversation; a 7-2 mark would mean 20 conference victories and nobody can remember the last time an SEC team reached 20 Ws in league play and was denied an opportunity to host.
At the moment, division leaders Vanderbilt and LSU are in as hosts. After getting swept by Arkansas, South Carolina has bounced back and would be the third SEC team to host if bids were awarded today.
Last year and in the year before, regionals were held at three SEC schools. In 2010, Arkansas was one of four SEC teams to host.
A fast finish would bump up Arkansas’ RPI, which is in the mid-50s. Although the RPI is not the end-all for the NCAA selection committee, it is a huge factor which makes this week’s series particularly important because Kentucky has an RPI in the top 30.
Arkansas’ number is affected by a loss to Western Illinois (10-26) in mid-February and a loss to Pacific (10-28) two weeks later. Both teams are outside the top 200 in RPI and are below schools that I didn’t even know had Division One baseball programs.
By comparison, Vanderbilt, LSU, and South Carolina are in the top eight in RPI.
The selection committee’s desire for geographic balance also could work against Arkansas, particularly if Oklahoma is awarded a regional. More than a dozen spots ahead of Arkansas in RPI, the Sooners are leading the Big 12. OU’s position is strengthened because the state of Texas sometimes has as many as three regional sites, but Rice might be the only host in the Lone Star state this year.
The irony is that Arkansas did not have the opportunity to make its case vs. OU because weather cancelled a game in Fayetteville last month.
The perception that Arkansas would be a host simply because of superb attendance was shot down a couple of years ago when the Razorbacks were passed over and the selection committee chose UCLA in the name of geographic balance. Attendance barely topped 1,000 in Los Angeles.
If the Razorbacks are snubbed for a regional, the bright side is that Arkansas is 7-1 in SEC road games and 6-6 in league games at Baum Stadium. Pushed to explain, somebody offered that there are distractions in Fayetteville, including family and girlfriends, and that it’s baseball only on the road. Somebody else suggested players try too hard to meet expectations.
There is also the quality of the competition, including division-leading LSU, plus Mississippi State and Ole Miss, each with an RPI in the top 20.
Arkansas’ pitching, the primary reason the Razorbacks were No. 1 in many preseason polls, is set up perfectly for the Kentucky series. Randall Fant, who did not get to pitch at Georgia because of a rain-out last Sunday, sharpened up with two innings against Missouri State on Tuesday. Fant, who is 4-1 with a 2.34 ERA, will make his 10th start of the season on Sunday. Prior to that, Barrett Astin (2.02 ERA) will pitch Friday and Ryne Stanek (1.60 ERA) will start on Saturday.
Whether or not there is a regional in Fayetteville, the Razorbacks are in perfect position to close the regular season with a flourish.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.