Tramel's ScissorTales: Big 12 softball must crack the RPI code for the NCAA Tournament

Berry Tramel
Oklahoman
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Texas A&M’s softball team had a 29-26 record as the NCAA selection committee made its final determinations. The Aggies were 6-18 record in the Southeastern Conference, good for 12th place in the 13-team league. 

Minnesota’s softball team had a 26-24-1 record, with a 10-11 Big Ten record, good for ninth place in the 14-team league. 

Baylor’s softball team had a 28-24 record, with an 8-9 Big 12 record, good for fourth in the seven-team league. 

Then came the NCAA Tournament selections. A&M and Minnesota were in. Baylor was out. 

Minnesota’s RPI (ratings percentage index) was 35th in the nation. A&M’s was 40th. Baylor’s was 63rd. 

And while yes, the SEC and Big Ten clearly are deeper conferences than is the Big 12, more than half of Baylor’s conference games came against OU, OSU and Texas. Three of the four unbeaten teams left in the Women’s College World Series. 

It seems apparent that some leagues have cracked the RPI code. The Big 12 apparently has not. 

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Oklahoma players cheer for Tiare Jennings (23) as she runs home after hitting a grand slam in the third inning of a Women's College World Series softball game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the Northwestern Wildcats at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, Thursday, June 2, 2022. Oklahoma won 13-2 on the opening day of the WCWS.

“We’ve had strong conversations about what it takes for us to be able to have as many teams represent at the World Series,” UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said of the Pac-12. 

Florida coach Tim Walton said each SEC school is inundated with data, especially since Greg Sankey became commissioner. 

“He has really put a lot more information on our plate to help us not only with the student-athletes' experience, but the championships, the RPI, all the different things, the nuances,” Walton said. 

The SEC got 12 of its 13 teams into the 64-team NCAA field. The Pac-12 got seven of its nine softball schools into the field. Meanwhile, in the Big 12, only OU, OSU and Texas made it.  

Sure, it’s cool that the Sooners, Cowgirls and Longhorns are a combined 16-2 in the tournament, including World Series wins over UCLA (Texas 7-2), Northwestern (OU 13-1) and Arizona (OSU 4-2) on Thursday. 

But that doesn’t help Baylor. Or Iowa State, which went 28-27 and had a 6-12 Big 12 record, with an RPI of 59. 

Do the Big 12 teams need to beef up their non-conference schedules? Do they need to beef down? 

Both A&M and Minnesota were on the brink of failing to finish above .500. A winning record is required for NCAA Tournament inclusion.  

Inouye-Perez noted that for the first time, all nine Pac-12 teams finished above .500. 

“That, to me, is a big testament to our planning in the preseason,” Inouye-Perez said. “Your ability to be able to have a solid preseason knowing we're all going to beat each other up in Pac, but gives us an opportunity to be selected for postseason.” 

Northwestern coach Kate Drohan said the RPI is a constant talking point in the Big Ten. 

“Where you go play, who you play against, top 10, top 25, top 50,” Drohan said. “I mean, we're constantly talking about it as a group of coaches to build that really competitive, really effective nonconference schedule.” 

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And in 2022, the Big Ten went to a complicated conference schedule that maximizes RPI potential, with the best teams from the previous season matched against each other as often as possible. 

The SEC did not have a strong NCAA showing. Only three of its 12 NCAA Tournament teams advanced to the super-regional round, and only Florida made it to Oklahoma City. 

The Big Ten placed seven of its 14 teams into the NCAA field. Only Northwestern advanced to a super regional. 

This season was quite instructive for the Big 12, which soon faces the reality that OU and Texas are leaving for the SEC. 

Maybe the Big 12 has adequately advised its members how to schedule for softball success and it went unheeded. Maybe teams just didn’t get the job done on the field. Maybe the Big 12 leaves its members to their own devises. 

But Big 12 softball had plenty of mojo this season. It needed to make a bigger splash than just three NCAA Tournament representatives. Teams like Baylor and Iowa State, in a reduced league, must schedule better. 

And while the Big 12 sports three of the four teams remaining in the WCWS winner’s bracket, two of those three are leaving. 

OSU, the rest of the Big 12 legacy schools and newcomers Brigham Young, Central Florida and Houston must crack the code, too. 

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The Mailbag: OU talent vs. WCWS field 

OU softball’s popularity has spawned an entire breed of fans who think up all kinds of interesting questions. 

Steve: “Meant to send this before the WCWS started, but here goes. Of the position players on the other seven teams, how many could start on this OU team?” 

Tramel: More than you think. Up the middle, OU has elite players. Tiare Jennings at second base, Grace Lyons at shortstop, Jayda Coleman in centerfield.  

But without scouring the World Series rosters, I’d say the WCWS field, minus the Sooners, could trump Taylon Snow at first base, Jana Johns at third base, Alyssa Brito in left and Rylie Boone in right field.  

Catcher? Not sure. 

But rest assured, there are a bunch of great players in the World Series, and only some of them wear crimson. 

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OU basketball, get ready for Nashville 

Outside of a few diversions to Oklahoma City and Dallas, OU basketball teams have been going to Kansas City, Missouri, for conference tournaments since 1946

That’s about to change, of course, with the Sooners pledged to join the Southeastern Conference sometime in the next three years. 

Get ready for Nashville, OU men's basketball. 

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey confirmed this week during conference meetings that the SEC Tournament is locked up in Nashville long-term. The city has a contract through 2030 to host, with the SEC having an option to extend that agreement through 2035, which apparently will be the case. 

The 2022 SEC Tournament was played in Tampa, but Nashville has ended the conference’s tradition of moving around the tournament. 

The modern SEC Tournament started in 1979, and the league used a variety of campus locations and destination cities. Atlanta has hosted the event 12 times, Nashville 11 and Birmingham, Alabama, six. Other off-campus locales include New Orleans (three), Memphis (two), St. Louis (one) and Orlando. 

But in 2018, the SEC signed the current Nashville contract. 

Nashville is 688 miles from Norman. Kansas City is 365 miles from Norman, so almost twice as close. Not that OU fans have been flocking to KC in recent seasons. What once was a sizable Sooner contingent has dwindled in recent years.  

Maybe the new league and new destination will rally the troops, but I’d be surprised. 

Kentucky dominates SEC basketball fervor, and having the tournament in Nashville only helps the Wildcats’ cause. It’s 214 miles from Lexington, Kentucky, to Nashville, but it’s only about 40 miles from Nashville to the Kentucky state line. UK fans are in every hill and holler of the Bluegrass State. 

In the Big 12, Kansas fans are top dogs, but Iowa State has staged a revolt, at least mounting a charge during the Kansas City tournament. Does the SEC have an Iowa State? I’m not aware, though Tennessee’s recent hoops uprising under Rick Barnes can’t hurt. 

Sankey revealed that SEC coaches have asked that the tournament conclude on the second Saturday of March, instead of the following day, Selection Sunday. 

The Big 12 went to a Saturday finish about a decade ago. The Big East, Atlantic Coast and Pac-12 long have finished on Saturday. 

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But the SEC, Big Ten, American and Atlantic-10 finish on Sunday, often finishing perilously close to the deadline for the basketball committee to submit its final 68-team bracket. 

Sankey didn’t make any promises about moving up the tournament a day. 

"I don't know if that is possible – we have contracts with Nashville, a great relationship with Bridgestone Arena – and I don't view that as necessarily a quick fix," Sankey said. "But something that we're going to explore in conversation.” 

When the Big 12 switched from a Sunday finish to a Saturday finish, the predominant reason was an extra day of rest for the participants in advance of the NCAA Tournament.  

But Sankey said SEC coaches are worried that the Sunday games are irrelevant to the committee. Last March, eighth-seeded Texas A&M upset Auburn and Arkansas to reach the SEC championship game before losing to Tennessee. 

The Aggies were left off the NCAA bracket, and A&M coach Buzz Williams passionately asked for more transparency in why the Ags were excluded. 

Of course, A&M was 23-12 overall at the time, 9-9 in the SEC, so it’s not like it was some great mystery. 

The SEC hasn’t announced a format for its eventual 16-team basketball tournament. But some kind of five-round format is likely, to keep the league’s top teams from playing four games in four or five days. 

The current SEC Tournament starts on Wednesday, so a Tuesday or even a Monday start might be required if a Saturday finish is desired. 

"We're a city-wide event when we're there, so there's a lot of moving parts," Sankey said. “But it's a relative conversation. We've had the dialogue before, not so much during my time as commissioner, but the Sunday finals to (NCAA) Thursday early play. Travel, recovery, preparation. 

“So this is not a new topic, but one that was reintroduced after just wondering how the game on Sunday was evaluated in comparison to the rest of the season." 

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NBA Finals star: Ime Udoka 

The NBA Finals tipped off Thursday night, and the star of the show was Celtics coach Ime Udoka.  

Sure, Al Horford and Jaylen Brown and Derrick White were Boston heroes. But Udoka pushed the right buttons at the right time as the Celtics wiped out a 12-point, fourth-quarter deficit and beat Golden State 120-108. Seems crazy to say that the game wasn’t that close, considering Boston didn’t take the lead for good until 5:10 left in the game, but that’s how it seemed.  

The Celtics were fourth-quarter dominant, and Udoka’s rotations were gold-dusted. 

Boston started the fourth quarter with a lineup of star wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, backup point guards Derrick White and Peyton Pritchard (granted, White is a combo guard), and non-shooting center Robert Williams III. 

That quintet produced some of the best basketball these NBA playoffs have seen. By the time Udoka made a substitution, 5½ minutes into the fourth quarter, the Celtics were within 101-97. 

Boston made seven of its nine shots during those 5½ minutes (only Tatum missed). But Golden State’s offense hadn’t collapsed; the Warriors made four straight shots – Andre Igoudala’s cut for a dunk, Klay Thompson’s 3-pointer, Draymond Green’s cut for a layup and Steph Curry’s stepback 20-footer. 

Those four players, remember, were the meat of the Warriors’ 2015 title team. Boston was threatening, but Golden State still seemed likely to pull out Game 1. 

Igoudala committed a foul with 6:34 left, and Udoka took that time to make a substitution. 

He resisted the urge to reinsert Marcus Smart, itching on the bench to get back in the fray. There have been times this postseason when Udoka went away from Pritchard completely, but this time, the second-year point guard from Oregon (the son of former OU tight end Terry Pritchard) was trusted. 

Instead, Udoka went with Horford in place of Williams, putting five Celtic shooters on the court. 

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Game 1: Celtics coach Ime Udoka draws up a play in the huddle during the first half.

With the floor stretched, Golden State was hard-pressed to guard Boston. And though the Celtics were playing with the oft-overmatched Pritchard, their defense found a higher notch. 

Boston scored on four straight possessions – back-to-back White 3-pointers, then back-to-back Horford 3-pointers – and suddenly the Warriors looked like Jersey Joe Wolcott against Rocky Marciano. 

Finally, Pritchard missed a deep ball, and when Boston got the ball back, Udoka called a timeout and went for knockout. In came Smart. 

With Boston leading 111-103, Horford rebounded a Brown miss and kicked it out to Smart, who nailed a 3-pointer. Seventy seconds later, Smart drove home another trey, and this game was a rout. 

The Celtic defense was suffocating. With 1:09 left, Thompson scored for Golden State on a fast break, ending a five-minute scoring drought. Nemanja Bjelica hit a 3-pointer for the Warriors with 16 seconds left to make the final look a little better. 

What a quarter for the Celtics. What a quarter for Udoka. 

Every move worked. Every player produced. Golden State was thought to have the deeper team and probably does. The Celtics played only nine players before Udoka cleared the bench in the waning seconds, but one of those nine was Daniel Theis, who didn’t play in the second half. 

But those eight Celtics were superb. Pritchard played 15½ minutes total, during which Boston outscored Golden State by 14. White played 31:49, during which Boston outscored Golden State by 21. White scored 21 points on 11 shots. 

It’s a long series. Teams in Game 5 rarely look the same as they did in Game 1. No telling what adjustments the Warriors will make or how the Celtics will counter. 

But in Game 1, Boston and its first-year coach had all the answers.  

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The List: Recovering from Game 1 defeats 

The Celtics’ Game 1 victory was not a death sentence for Golden State. Here are the eight NBA teams that lost at home in Game 1 of the Finals, only to win the series: 

1. 1953 Lakers: The Knickerbockers scored 30 points in the fourth quarter to win 96-88 in Minneapolis, but the Lakers stormed back to win four straight. 

2. 1957 Celtics: The Boston dynasty began with a 125-123, double-overtime win over the St. Louis Hawks in Game 7, the first of 11 Celtics in 13 years. But that series started with – amazingly enough – a 125-123 St. Louis road win in double overtime. 

3. 1966 Celtics: Elgin Baylor and Jerry West combined to score 77 points as the Lakers won Game 1 133-129 in overtime, on the road. But Boston won the series in seven games, giving Red Auerbach his final title as coach. 

4. 1972 Lakers: One of the greatest NBA teams ever, the 69-13 Lakers lost Game 1 114-92 to New York. But the Knicks, playing without star center Willis Reed, then lost four straight. 

5. 1984 Celtics: The first Magic Johnson-Larry Bird Finals. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored 32 points in Game 1 at Boston to lead the Lakers to a 115-109 victory. But the Celtics rallied and won the series in seven games. 

6. 1988 Lakers: Adrian Dantley made 14 of 16 shots as Detroit beat the Lakers 105-93 in Game 1. But the grueling series got back to Los Angeles, and the Lakers won two in a row at home to prevail in the seven-game series. 

7. 1991 Bulls: The Lakers pulled off a 93-91 upset in Game 1 at Chicago, but the guard was changing. The Bulls won four straight to give Michael Jordan his first title. 

8. 2001 Lakers: In the middle of a three-year championship run, Los Angeles lost Game 1 107-101 in overtime, as Allen Iverson scored 48 points in 52 minutes. But Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were too much; the Lakers won the series in five games. 

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at btramel@oklahoman.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today. 

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