NCAA softball selection committee chair addresses UM regional snub

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

The outcry regarding the 64-team NCAA Softball Tournament reveal came quickly and continues to simmer.

Michigan coach Carol Hutchins was among the coaches leading the charge after her Big Ten championship-winning team was not only snubbed from being one of 16 teams hosting a regional this weekend but has been sent out to the Seattle regional hosted by Washington. She believes the Big Ten was “disrespected” with only Michigan, Minnesota and Northwestern making the field. And speaking of Washington, those players were so disgruntled by their No. 16 seeding, they walked out of the team meeting room during a live look-in on ESPN2 when the Huskies’ seeding was revealed. Washington is the Pac-12 runner-up, behind UCLA.

Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins.

Meanwhile, the Southeastern Conference has 11 teams in the field, including seven hosting regionals this weekend. UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez was interviewed on ESPN after the reveal and said the Pac-12 also was “disrespected.” Among the potential reasons for the snubs include the Big Ten playing a conference-only schedule, while Pac-12 coaches have wondered if their lack of TV exposure hurt them.

“Worst most ridiculous bracket of all time. Hands Down,” Stacey Nuveman Deniz, a two-time Olympian, UCLA standout and current San Diego State coach, posted on Twitter.

She wasn’t alone.

“This committee hated the Big Ten,” Illinois assistant coach Laura Trout said on Twitter. “Punishing student athletes who had nothing to do with the decision to play a conference only schedule. Tough.”

More: Lexie Blair leads Michigan softball's sweep of top Big Ten awards

Matt Larsen is the North Dakota State athletic director and chair of the NCAA softball selection committee. He said he understands the backlash.

“I get it. I get that fans are upset sometimes and certainly coaches who live it every single day and feel like they put together a good resume and just miss out,” Larsen told The Detroit News in a phone interview Wednesday. “I completely get that and understand.”

Hutchins, named the Big Ten’s Coach of the Year on Wednesday, was furious with the selection committee Sunday night.

“Absolutely did not do a very good job,” Hutchins told a small group of reporters. “They disrespected our entire conference and you know what, they have to give credence to all different areas of the country. Clearly, there’s a little bias with at least one conference in particular. I would say the NCAA committee, I’m not very pleased with at all.”

She hadn’t exactly cooled down during an interview with reporters Tuesday night, but knows the focus had to change as she prepared her team to travel to Seattle where the Wolverines, as the Seattle Region’s No. 2 seed, will play No. 3 Seattle Friday night at 8 p.m. (Detroit time). The winner will play the winner of Washington-Portland State on Saturday at 6 p.m. in the double-elimination format.

"At this point, we’re here to play,” Hutchins said Tuesday. “I had a few sentences to say on Sunday night and on Monday, but at this point, it doesn’t matter anymore. This is what we got. I teach my kids every day that life isn’t fair. And whether we think it’s fair or not, somebody thinks it’s fair. And we have an opponent (Washington) who feels disrespected also, so they’re going to be on fire with everybody they meet.

“We can’t control any of that. We just need to play good softball. That’s my approach at this point. I like my kids. I think they’ve moved on. They’re a very resilient group.”

Hutchins believes the message from the committee was it was “tough luck” Big Ten teams didn’t have the opportunity to play out of conference.

“And you know what?” Hutchins said. “’That’s on the conference.”

Larsen said the committee weighed the Big Ten-only schedule as much as possible.

“It gave us a few less data points than we typically have when you’re trying to compare teams head-to-head, and I think we tried as best we could as a committee,” Larsen said. “I can speak for myself, but we watched a ton of Big Ten softball games just knowing we weren’t going to have some of those head-to-head non-conference comparisons that we typically have. In a typical year, you’re comparing apples to apples, and this year, you’re comparing apples to grapefruits.

“People were scheduling under much different situations than they have typically. It wasn’t just the Big Ten. There were other schools or conferences who played zero or very limited non-conference schedules. So we tried our best not to penalize those teams, because some of those things were out of their hands. ... Whether it was a conference mandate, whether it was financial, whether it was geographic because of COVID or whatever it might be. We tried our best not to punish them, but on the flip side, the teams that were able to go out and put together a really difficult schedule and won games, you didn’t want to penalize them, either. So trying to balance between the two became a large part of our conversations in the committee room.”

Michigan, Larsen said, was the subject of much conversation in the committee room. Michigan two weeks ago was identified as one of the 20 potential host sites, a move made this year for COVID-19 reasons.

“When we predetermined 20 sites that potentially could host, Michigan was right there, just like they were in the committee room over the weekend,” Larsen said. “When you look at the Big Ten, Michigan more than any of the other teams that got in, really separated themselves, there’s no doubt about it. They played really well, they have two dominant pitchers (Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Alex Storako and Meghan Beaubien the 2018 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year) in the circle. So we spent a lot of time talking about Michigan, because they did put together such a great resume and played really well.

“When we get into the room, you start going through, and you’re digging into a lot of metrics, and again, there’s a couple data points we didn’t have comparisons for Michigan versus some other teams. That’s not to say they didn’t have a great season, they did. And I think they’re going to be a really tough team in the 64-team bracket. But at the same time, when you’re looking at the top-16, top-20 teams, they’re so close, and they’re so good. The one thing I’ll say is we talked a lot about Michigan, we tried to evaluate them as fairly as we could, and I get that folks are upset and disappointed. But whoever that 17th, 18th team that’s out, they’re upset because they put together a really good resume. Unfortunately this year Michigan ended up being on the outside. But that doesn’t at all diminish the year they had. Again, I think they’re a really good team and could make a run in this championship.”

When asked if the bottom SEC teams that made the 64-team field are better than the middle of the Big Ten, Larsen again said it came down to the SEC schools aggressively scheduling non-conference games. That's something Big Ten programs were not allowed to do this year. That was the same reason Kennesaw State at 26-25 is in the field, he said, because of the difficult schedule with some wins against strong teams. Duke went on a late season run, winning 14 of 15 to win and “legitimately” earned a top-16 seed, Larsen said. But Georgia is hosting the regional in which Duke is the top seed because it previously was identified as one of the 20 host sites.

UCLA is the only Pac-12 school to earn a top-8 seed (No. 2), Arizona is the No 11 seed and Arizona State the No. 15. Then there’s Washington at No. 16. Oregon is headed to a regional with No. 12 seed Texas, and Stanford is in a regional with No. 6 Arkansas.

Arizona coach Mike Candrea wondered aloud if the lack of national exposure because of the Pac-12 Network and mentioned the SEC’s TV deal with ESPN and the SEC Network. The seeded teams from the SEC are: Alabama (No. 3), Florida (No. 4), Arkansas (No. 6,) LSU (No. 7),  Missouri (No. 8), Tennessee (No. 9) and Kentucky (No. 14).

“Throughout the years now, the Pac-12 Network hasn’t helped our case,” Candrea said. “We need to look at what we need to do to get our people in front of the audience it needs to be in front of. That’s the next step in our conference, to fix what we have. It’s broken right now.

 “When I turn on the SEC Network, they’ve got a show that looks like ESPN, every highlight with baseball and softball. Obviously, that’s going to catch eyes.”

Larsen said the committee does not allow biases to “creep in.”

Michigan arrived in Seattle on Wednesday after winning three of the Big Ten’s four individual awards. Lexie Blair was named the Big Ten’s Player of the Year. Blair said the players were upset for a day and then moved on.

“I don’t think I have to keep them focused and motivated,” Hutchins said Tuesday of her players. “I mean, if they’re not motivated, then I don’t know what the heck they played all year. I think they’re motivated. The biggest thing is we have to keep them confident that they don’t have to do anything bigger or better than they’ve been doing.”

Larsen said he has fielded calls from angry coaches but after four years with the committee knows there will always be teams that are upset. It’s just that this year, it seems more pronounced.

“The fact that people are upset and care means they’re invested in it,” he said.

Twitter: @chengelis