The 18th-ranked Michigan softball team secured a bid into the 2021 NCAA softball tournament when it clinched the Big Ten title last Saturday, but its postseason fate is far from sealed.
Whether or not the Wolverines host a regional, and which programs they will compete against in the regional, will be decided by the D-I Softball Committee this upcoming Sunday.
With the Big Ten playing a conference-only schedule this season, the selection becomes all the more complicated. As many other teams in the nation took part in a longer season that included various out-of-conference opponents, the bodies of work of Big Ten teams are incomparable to teams who played full schedules.
That can cause major issues for the teams of the conference, especially if the committee leans on the NCAA’s Ratings Power Index (RPI) system to evaluate them in its selections. Although Michigan is ranked 18th in the USA Today/NFCA coaches poll, they sit at 29th in the RPI.
When Michigan coach Carol Hutchins met with reporters on Tuesday, she made her stance clear.
“We’re still fighting with RPI and the committee,” Hutchins said. “A number of people, myself included, believe that we can be a top-16 seed.”
The RPI is a system that places a heavy emphasis on a team’s strength of schedule when evaluating and ranking programs; 50% goes towards the team’s strength of schedule, 25% to the team’s winning percentage and the remaining 25% to an opponent’s strength of schedule.
In this unorthodox season, in which the 14 teams of the Big Ten Conference played solely against each other, the RPI weighting plays to the teams’ disadvantage.
In a typical season, Michigan would travel to the South and West, playing some of the highest-ranked teams in the country, to begin the season as it awaits warmer weather in Ann Arbor. Losing those opportunities this season complicates the RPI situation, and may raise questions amongst the committee on how the Wolverines can stack up against the nation’s best this postseason.
Hutchins hopes the committee will take the RPI’s lack of effectiveness for a conference-only season into account when they make their choices on Sunday.
“The Big Ten is just warming up,” Hutchins said. “We just got done with (our first 25 games) about 10 games ago, everybody else got to get their full schedule in. So for them to then turn around and say, ‘well we’re going to use a formula that doesn’t apply at all to (you),’ negates our conference and our student athletes that deserve an opportunity.
“(The RPI is) supposed to be one piece of the formula. The committee needs to know the teams that they’re looking at, the strength of the teams that they’re actually looking at. … We just need to have people that, to be frank, know what they’re doing … people that really understand our sport.”
Although the RPI and coaches poll say that Michigan hasn’t faced any top-20 teams, Hutchins believes the Big Ten gauntlet has prepared it well for postseason play.
“Northwestern and Minnesota I think could be as good as any top-16 seed out there,” Hutchins said. “And we played them really well.”
The Wolverines went 6-2 against the Wildcats and Golden Gophers this season, and currently boast a 32-6 record. Although anticipation for the postseason is mounting, Hutchins is keeping her team focused on this weekend’s four game homestand against Rutgers.
The committee will continue evaluations through Sunday before selections are made. With Michigan currently ranked at 18, right at the bubble of hosting a regional in a normal season, this weekend’s series against the Scarlet Knights may have an enormous impact on whether or not a regional is played at Alumni Field.
“We’re playing to get to a bigger stage,” Hutchins said. “And it starts now.”