I’m not trying to say Razorback Baseball shouldn’t have hosted a regional.
I get the outrage. You only put your good stuff on your resume, and the Razorbacks’ good stuff is really impressive. Razorback Baseball finished 3rd place in the SEC. Swept South Carolina in Columbia. Won a series against Mississippi State. Won two of five against LSU, with one of the losses coming in extra innings. They won seven of ten SEC series. Arkansas has the lowest ERA in the nation at 1.87, the only school below 2.00.
The Hogs also play in what’s considered one of the best stadiums in the country, with an official capacity (10,737) over four times greater than their regional host, Kansas State’s (2,331). That’s a lot of ticket dollars left on the table.
Strictly based on accomplishments and assets, I don’t know that there are 16 teams that can make a better case than that. Granted, I haven’t analyzed the resumes of all the hosts, so I can’t say with any certainty which hosting school Arkansas would replace in a just world.
All that being said, let’s not just dismiss the criticism of Arkansas’ non-conference schedule and results.
Razorback Baseball played 25 non-conference games out of 57 total outings. That’s about 44%. That’s a huge chunk of the schedule to disregard as less-meaningful. We all consider the league games most important, but we also frequently hear about how much a waste of time the SEC Tournament is, and about all we’re doing is playing for position to get to Omaha. And for a program like Arkansas, that’s been to Omaha frequently in recent years, that should be the ultimate goal.
And if that’s the ultimate goal, non-conference games count just as much as conference games when you compare teams at the end of the year. There are simply far too many games to ignore in favor of the 30 SEC games.
For comparison’s sake, in football non conference makes up just 33.3% of a regular season schedule, and if the SEC moves to 9 games sometime in the near future, that will go down to 25%. It’s easier to play a respectably tough schedule when your conference opponents make up that much of it. And even most football teams play one quality non-conference opponent.
In basketball, non-conference made up 38.7% of Arkansas’ schedule last year, and that’s a big enough focus in the SEC that commissioner Mike Slive announced Tuesday that all league AD’s have agreed to submit their basketball non-conference schedules to the league for review. Bad losses by several teams (Not the Hogs, thank you. Arkansas saved its bad losses for conference season.) in non-conference caused the league’s RPI to plummet, which played a part in the SEC only getting three teams in the NCAA Tournament last season (and which may have kept Arkansas out of the NIT).
And apparently, the NCAA makes their baseball bracket very similarly to how they select their basketball bracket. Schedule bad teams if you want, but you better beat them. Arkansas beat most of them, but losses to bad teams absolutely destroy whatever respect you gain from outsiders for good victories.
One way to improve your strength of schedule is to play more road games, which is something Dave Van Horn suggested on Monday, but it doesn’t help if you lose all of those games. The Razorbacks were a measly 1-6 in non-conference away from Baum Stadium this year, including getting no-hit against Nebraska. The one win was at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock. That didn’t help anything.
The answer is very simple. Beating good teams is impressive. Losing to bad teams is disappointing. Beating bad teams or losing to good teams is irrelevant. If you want to use games against bad teams to experiment with lineups or get playing experience for younger players, that’s fine – and expected to a certain extent – but you’ve still got to win those games. Not just most of them. Nearly all of them. You can’t dismiss losing to Western Illinois as a fluke if you follow it by going 0-for-4 against bad-to-mediocre teams in Arizona or getting shut out at home by New Mexico.
If nothing else, consider this: LSU hasn’t lost a midweek non-conference game in over two years. They’re on a 34-game winning streak in those games. If those games weren’t important, or if they were trying too many new things, that streak wouldn’t exist.
It’s important to note though, especially if everyone agrees that getting to Omaha is infinitely more important than the route taken to get there, this Arkansas team is set up very well to make a run back. Arkansas has proven they can beat anybody in the country with halfway decent run support for the best pitching staff in the nation.
But they can also lose four straight games to subpar competition or boot away the ground ball that should be the winning out and give away a game. And fairly or unfairly, that’s why the Hogs are in Manhattan, Kansas this week instead of Fayetteville.