Commentary

5 Burning Questions: softball bracket

Originally Published: May 11, 2009
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

In a little more than three weeks, we'll have a single answer to the college softball season. For now, we have a bracket of 64 teams and at least as many questions.

1. Can anyone stop Florida?

The tournament's No. 1 overall seed has wins in 125 of its past 133 games, dating back to the beginning of last season. It has Stacey Nelson, the senior ace in the circle who may well pick up national player of the year honors the night before the first game of the Women's College World Series. It has a lineup loaded from top to bottom with power and patience and a defense that is tied for second in the nation in fielding percentage.

[+] EnlargeStacey Nelson
University of Florida Athletics Florida's Stacey Nelson could be the player of the year.

And it has Tim Walton, already one of softball's best coaches little more than a decade after he played in baseball's College World Series -- and a doppelganger in demeanor and appearance for Eric Taylor, the stone-faced, good-guy football coach in the TV show "Friday Night Lights."

All Florida -- and the rest of the SEC -- doesn't have is a national championship.

The closest any SEC team has come to winning a national championship was two years ago, when Tennessee and Monica Abbott came within a few innings of wrapping things up against Arizona. And one of the architects of that run thinks this Florida team might be better.

"I'm not just trying to build them up, but they're awesome," Tennessee co-coach Ralph Weekly said during the SEC tournament. "I think our 2007 team that was ranked No. 1 for 12 consecutive weeks was something like Florida, but I think Florida may be even better. They're just a really, really good, solid team with no weaknesses."

Of course, a scarcity of weaknesses is not the same thing as invincibility. The Gators lost a 1-0 duel against Washington on a neutral field when Nelson pitched well. They dropped a 6-4 decision on the road against archrival Alabama, when a good offense got to the ace. And they lost at home against Baylor when their defense let them down.

So there may not be many weaknesses to probe, but there are strengths to test. And with Florida State's pitching potentially looming in a super regional rematch of an extra-innings Florida win earlier this season, and big offenses such as No. 4 Alabama and either No. 8 Stanford or No. 9 Arizona potentially waiting the first two days in Oklahoma City, the Gators don't have an easy road ahead.

But it's an easier road than the one faced by anyone charged with stopping them.

2. Which teams have the biggest gripes with the bracket?

Creighton

Snub: It's tough to know whether Creighton's anger should be directed primarily at the NCAA tournament selection committee or its own conference, but the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season champion has reason to be furious right now.

The Bluejays finished the regular season as the best softball team the MVC had to offer. They had the best pitcher by a country mile in Tara Oltman, who finished with 10 more wins (29) and an ERA more than half a run better (0.81) than anyone else in the league. They won four more games than any other team in the league and won all seven three-game series they played against league opponents. They also beat NCAA tournament teams Arizona and Nebraska.

That is a three-month effort deserving of a reward like a trip to the NCAA tournament.

Instead, because Creighton ran into a hot pitcher in Bradley's Ashley Birdsong and lost a game in the conference tournament in which it allowed just three hits and didn't commit an error, it's done. It's done because someone thinks it's a good idea to have a single-elimination conference tournament for a league that historically struggles to attract at-large attention.

Creighton, with a respectable RPI and a 13-7 record against top-100 RPI teams, deserved better from the selection committee. It also deserved better from its own conference.

Seeding: Let's see if we have this right. With all of its teams ranked in the top 50 of the last published RPI rankings, the SEC was a weighty enough conference to merit eight at-large bids, including one for a team that finished .500 overall and another for a team that didn't qualify for the conference tournament. That's arguable but also defensible.

But after going 21-6 in that same league, ranking second in those same final public RPI rankings and beating Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Baylor and BYU and splitting a pair of games with Washington, Alabama is seeded fourth, behind Washington and UCLA?

And so instead of potentially getting Florida versus Washington and UCLA versus Alabama in the winner's bracket in Oklahoma City, we would get conference rematches.

3. What is the toughest regional?

First off, massaging a bracket to minimize travel costs is miserable and thankless work, so there's some measure of credit due the committee for keeping the number of necessary flights low (by my count, only 14 teams will clearly have to fly to reach a regional site).

But geography does create some regional sites that are great for fans but daunting for teams. And in a close race, Waco looks like the slight "winner" for toughest regional, narrowly edging out Los Angeles (UCLA, Fresno State, UNLV, Long Beach State) and Tempe (Arizona State, San Diego State, LSU, Cal State Fullerton).

[+] EnlargeLafayette Softball
UL Sports InformationLouisiana-Lafayette is looking strong heading into the Waco Regional.

No. 12 seed Northwestern stumbled toward the end of the regular season, and the selection committee provided ample opportunity for someone to kick the Wildcats while they're down by sending them to face host Baylor, Louisiana-Lafayette and Texas State.

With third baseman Brette Reagan back in the lineup, Baylor went 12-7 down the stretch, including wins against Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska and Texas A&M. One team it lost to during that stretch was Texas State, which may be the toughest 4-seed in any regional after racing through the Southland Conference regular season and tournament.

And yet the hottest team heading to Waco may be Louisiana-Lafayette. Although she's pitching limited innings alongside Donna Bourgeois, Ashley Brignac has 94 strikeouts in 69 innings this season and hasn't allowed an earned run in 66.1 consecutive innings.

4. Who are the sleeper teams?

Championship sleeper: Georgia Tech
There's not so much a hurdle in the path of Georgia Tech's road to Cinderella status as a giant, Everest-sized mountain. Scratch that, a Rainier-sized mountain. Yes, Georgia Tech is in the same super regional draw as Washington. Yes, that makes for long odds that the ACC champs will reach Oklahoma City in the first place, let alone find themselves celebrating a title the following Tuesday or Wednesday.

Ga. Tech

But bear with this -- because if the Yellow Jackets got past the Huskies (or if the Huskies somehow stumbled on their own cross-country trip to Amherst, Mass., for regionals), they would have a favorable route lined up to the winner's bracket in Oklahoma City.

Setting aside the fact that Washington is really, really good (or that in Iowa's Brittany Weil and Auburn's Anna Thompson, there are pitchers other than Danielle Lawrie to worry about if you're Tech), there are reasons to like the Yellow Jackets on their own merits.

They are a patient offensive team that will wait out pitchers and which has the ability to go for crooked numbers (.509 slugging) or small-ball runs (63 stolen bases). And while they don't have the kind of ace you normally associate with an extended stay in Oklahoma City, they have two interchangeable pieces in the circle in Kristen Adkins and Tiffany Johnson, a potentially intriguing change of pace in freshman Jessica Coan and a fantastic defense behind whoever is in the circle.

WCWS sleeper: Kentucky
We'll save the Wildcats for question No. 5.

Super regional sleeper: Jacksonville State
A trip to Knoxville to face the Lady Vols on their home turf in a regional is never an easy assignment. But on some level, Jacksonville State has to be breathing a collective sigh of relief after it escaped another trip to Tuscaloosa to face Alabama in regional play.

The Gamecocks got an at-large bid after slipping up in the Ohio Valley tournament, and they deserved the kind of consideration not always lobbed the OVC's way. This is a team that hits the ball hard (.534 slugging) and doesn't get itself out at the plate (180 walks and a .393 on-base percentage) or on the bases (42 steals in 44 attempts).

Ashley Eliasson proved her postseason mettle in the circle a year ago, beating Florida State twice in the Tuscaloosa Regional and bouncing back from one rough start against Alabama to at least keep her team in a second game against the Crimson Tide.

Tennessee's pitching looked vulnerable in last week's SEC tournament, and while the Lady Vols can score their share of runs, they aren't necessarily built to win 8-6 games. Nebraska and James Madison complete a regional quartet that doesn't have an easy win.

5. What's it like to make the NCAA tournament for the first time?

Seven programs are in the tournament for the first time, so congratulations are in order for Bradley, James Madison, Kentucky, North Dakota State, Radford, Sacred Heart and Tennessee-Martin.

Kentucky

The only one of the six to gain entry by way of an at-large bid, Kentucky also has the best chance of sticking around for a super regional. The second seed in Columbus, it faces BYU on Thursday in a regional that also includes host and No. 11 Ohio State and Canisius.

A rising star in the coaching ranks, Rachel Lawson has the Wildcats in the NCAA tournament in her second season in Lexington. And she managed it with a roster that includes 14 freshmen and sophomores and nary a full-time senior starter. Even the coaching staff is young; assistants Kristine Himes and Ashley Fetric wrapped up their playing careers in 2003 and 2007, respectively.

So as the team gathered at a Lexington-area restaurant to watch Sunday's selection show -- joined by new men's basketball coach John Calipari -- a touch of nervousness was understandable as the first five screens of eight teams came and went without their name. Then, as the show returned from a commercial break, it greeted them in big white letters.

"The first couple of pages kept going by and we weren't seeing our name," Molly Johnson said. "And then finally it popped up on the top of the screen and it was just pure elation from our team -- lots of claps, cheers. So we're really excited right now."

Johnson is one of the few remaining players Lawson inherited at Kentucky. Now a junior and arguably the best shortstop in arguably the best conference in the country (she's hitting .420 with a 1.185 OPS and 21 stolen bases and is ranked third in the conference in assists), she's the face of a team that's becoming more and more recognizable. That's a far cry from the state of the program when the Arizona native made the move to the Bluegrass State.

"I knew it was going to take a lot of hard work," Johnson said of a program that won eight conference games the two years before she arrived and just seven more in her first two seasons. "I knew we were a ways from reaching this step. I think for it to happen this year was actually sooner than I had expected. But when I got here, I was just hoping to help turn the program around."

Ohio State and Mountain West champion BYU are balanced teams with two quality starting pitchers and lineups that turn mistake pitches into home runs in the blink of an eye. But thanks in part to freshman pitchers Rachel Riley (who one-hit Florida in an April loss that marked her ascension to the role of de facto ace) and Chanda Bell, that description also fits snugly around a team that survived the SEC and is ready for more.

And as for the long wait Sunday until the 10 p.m. ET selection show? The success that netted Kentucky a trip to the semifinals of the SEC tournament ultimately provided Johnson with a diversion -- albeit one perhaps even less enjoyable than waiting out the clock.

"It was hard to wait all day long, but I have to take a final tomorrow," Johnson recounted of a rescheduled psychology exam. "So I was studying all day and that kind of helped me ease my nerves a little bit."

Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.