Relief from being one of the last at-large teams in the 2011 NCAA Baseball Tournament was the first emotion for Mississippi State head coach John Cohen.
It wasn’t however his only emotion.
The Bulldogs third-year head coach had strong words when the 64-team field was released and he saw LSU, a team with a higher RPI ranking than his club that beat him two out of three in Starkville, wasn’t selected for the NCAA postseason.
“The thing I’m most shocked about right now is LSU, which is unbelievable, but that’s another whole conversation,” Cohen said.
LSU (36-20, 13-17 in Southeastern Conference play) did not receive an invitation to the NCAA Tournament for only the fourth time since 1985 due mostly to failing to make the conference tournament but feeling confident about their NCAA at-large chances leaving Starkville after a 6-3 victory over Mississippi State.
“This team clearly deserved to be in the NCAA Tournament, and I'm so disappointed for the kids that they don't get the opportunity to do so,” LSU head coach Paul Mainieri said. “The disappointment of today will be a very strong motivator for our team as we go forward. I know we don't want to feel like this ever again. I don't think we should be feeling like this, quite frankly, but we left the decision in the hands of people.”
After the regular season finale loss, Cohen needed no hesitation to proclaim the Tigers as an NCAA Tournament team.
“If they’re not an NCAA team, I’ll eat this piece of paper right here,” the Bulldogs head coach said to the local media while looking down at the printed box score in his hand.
Minutes before watching the NCAA selection show Monday afternoon on ESPN, rumors on Twitter had already started that the two schools that did not qualify for the SEC Tournament (LSU and Ole Miss) were not in the NCAA Tournament field.
Cohen, who has been a strong advocate of sending all 12 SEC teams to the postseason tournament, suggested this as the moment to rethink the policy on the event in Hoover.
“I heard them say that the fact that LSU didn’t get in (the SEC Tournament) as a reason so that may be something that will change our thinking about our tournament for years to come,” Cohen said. In my opinion LSU should be one of the better teams in the field of 64. I’ll send Paul a text and I know everybody in our league supports them."
With half of the teams announced 15 minutes into the selections, the network had gone into a commercial break without calling out Mississippi State’s name leaving players and coaches in Starkville scratching their heads wondering if they’d be left home without a bid.
“They were excited since I think we were one of the last teams announced so you’re going ‘my goodness,’” Cohen said.
Senior third baseman Jarrod Parks initially thought ESPN had finished with the field before the commercial break and his season along with MSU career was over.
“When the commercial hit, I thought there wasn’t anything left and thought ‘uh oh’ but when the announcer said 32 were left I thought we're OK,” Parks said.
When all 64 teams had been assigned and bracketed, Cohen’s thoughts went straight to LSU’s team room instead of the jubilation and scouting that would follow in his office.
“I can’t even imagine what the LSU kids are going through right now,” Cohen said. “I’m still shocked about that because there’s no doubt LSU deserves to be in the NCAA Tournament. No doubt about it.”
Cohen said he’d like to hear NCAA baseball selection committee chairman Tim Weiser’s explanation as to why the Tigers were not included.
It wasn’t a memorable response. Weiser, the deputy commissioner of the Big 12 Conference, failed to give a specific reason in his teleconference following the selections as to why LSU was excluded.
“I can not answer that because although I may have an opinion about that, I can tell you there equal or more that have opposite opinions on that,” Weiser said.
Baseball America national college writer John Manuel speculated on his podcast following the announcement of the field that Weiser may not have agreed personally with the choice that was made by a majority of his committee.
“My sense was he was on the losing side of that debate,” Manuel said.
Most national writers and bracket projectors had LSU in the field and the spotlighted argument after the field was announced was a debate of the inclusion of St. John’s. The Red Storm, which had a RPI ranking 28 spots lower than LSU (54 to 26) were given better consideration due to finishing second in the Big East Conference (rated the 13th best conference in Division 1) compared to a ninth place finisher in the SEC.
“Conference standing was very important to this committee,” Mark Etheridge, publisher of SEBaseball.com, said. “That one game in the standings (between Mississippi State and LSU) was more important than a road series win at another bubble team.”
St. John’s, which finished the 2011 season with a 35-20 record, had a 1-6 record against the RPI Top 50 (a 13-3 victory over Georgia Tech on Feb. 27) but Weiser suggested that the Red Storm choosing to play 25 games away from home was a factor to certain members of the committee.
“The balancing argument is we shouldn’t disadvantage those that are in warmer climates or the opportunities to play more home games,” Weiser said.
Another potential factor that the Baseball America duo of Manuel and Fitt pointed out was five members of the 10-person committee being affiliated with schools that received NCAA bids including St. John’s director of athletics Chris Monasch.
“Three years ago we after the last year of (former Mississippi State athletics director) Larry Templeton’s tenure as committee chairman, we speculated that perhaps there was some politicking among the teams he had connections to doing well,” Fitt said. “St. John’s get in and they’ve got a representative on the committee. That has to be said.”
Cohen said Monday he questions periodically if the numbers of the RPI and other official rankings online are true representations of how teams across the country stack up. The Bulldogs head coach used Arkansas getting snubbed a hosting opportunity for a lower ranked UCLA team as an example of his concerns for what he calls ‘the best league in America’
“You’re a little disappointed because I felt Arkansas was good enough to be hosting,” Cohen said. “If what we’re seeing on Boyd’s World and Nitty Gritty Report (by Warren Nolan) is close to the actual RPI number than it’s pretty disappointing. Wow.”
Weiser was very consistent to point out the debate in the conference room in Indianapolis but denying that a future precedent may have been set devaluing the RPI and therefore giving northern schools a better chance at at-large berths.
“What the discussion centered around was a number of our committee members is a second place finish in the Big East more important than a ninth place finish in the SEC or an eighth place finish in the Big 12,” Weiser said. “It depends on your prospective on how to answer that.”