The NCAA baseball tournament has been in its current format so long that it’s hard to remember it being done any differently.
In 1999, the NCAA expanded the field from 48 to 64 teams. That meant switching from eight six-team regionals that each sent a team on to the College World Series to 16 four-team regionals. Between the regionals and Omaha, they inserted the “super regional” round, a best-two-out-of-three contest between two regional champions, typically on the home field of the national seed.
At the CWS, the championship is decided by a best-of-three series at the end instead of a single “winner-take-all” game, as was the case when LSU won the first five of its six national championships.
Considering the growth of the college game — we’ve passed the point where every regional and super regional game is streamed online or televised on an ESPN network — it’s understandable to take an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. But there is nonetheless a quiet drumbeat for change out there.
Kendall Rogers, editor and writer for D1Baseball.com and arguably the most esteemed voice covering the college game, recently took up the call again for the NCAA to switch to best-of-three series throughout the tournament leading up to Omaha. It’s a view Rogers suggests has its supporters on the NCAA Division I Baseball Committee.
“I’ve suggested to the NCAA for a few years that I prefer a three-game series format,” he tweeted earlier this month. “I know the committee has pondered the idea.”
Under what I’ll call the Rogers Plan, the NCAA would ditch the 16 four-team regionals in favor of 32 head-to-head matchups in three-game series. Then you would go on to 16 second-round best-of-three series, then eight super regionals, then the CWS.
Taking LSU’s path thus far, such a format would have the Tigers, the national No. 8 seed, hosting Utah Valley, the No. 4 seed in last week’s Baton Rouge regional, for a best-two-out-of-three series. Then, let’s assume, LSU would have hosted Rice after the Owls (the No. 2 seed in the regional here) in Houston knocked off Southeastern Louisiana (the No. 3 seed). Then LSU would have moved on to face Coastal Carolina in the super regional for the right to go to Omaha.
It’s an intriguing concept, LSU coach Paul Mainieri said, which would allow most of the NCAA tournament to mirror what schools do virtually the entire season: play three-game series. One assumes there would still be two four-team pools in the CWS, though.
“What I like about it is, if you’re a top team, you have more chances to host NCAA play in your ballpark and more sites around the country,” Mainieri said. “Those four-team regionals can be real tricky sometimes. A lot of No. 4 seeds have one great pitcher who can jump up and beat a top seed.”
With an early best-of-three round, Mainieri said he figures “there would be less upsets with the lower-seeded teams.”
“The goal is to be the best team coming out of the weekend,” he said. “You might lose a game, but you’d have a chance to win two.”
Such a sea change in the way the NCAA tournament is conducted wouldn’t be without drawbacks.
First, you’re talking about extending the tournament a week. Does that mean you push the CWS back to where it ends somewhere around July 4 — college baseball in the heartland on Independence Day, anyone? Or do you move the NCAA tournament up a week? And if you move it up, do you eliminate money-making conference tournaments or a week of the regular season? Given the winter weather gripping much of the country, even parts of the South some years, it’s hard to imagine the regular season moving earlier than its current mid-February start.
Sixteen more host sites to start the tournament would mean a lot more travel. That means more expense, which could be a non-starter for the NCAA. It also might be something ESPN, which currently holds rights to televise or stream every tournament game, might not feel worth televising, with so many higher seeds as the heavy favorites. It’s unlikely — you can find spring football games on TV these days — but it’s possible.
For now, the idea of changing the NCAA tournament format remains so much relatively meaningless prose. It isn’t even a cloud on the horizon for a very good reason, as Mainieri illustrated: “I don’t think it’s ever gained such serious traction to the point that they’ve asked for feedback from the coaches,” he said.
A new NCAA tournament format wouldn’t be as controversial as the designated hitter rule. It probably won’t happen, but 20 years ago, who had conceived of a super regional?
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.