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    Softball Bracketology

    May Madness is almost upon us.

    The NCAA Softball Tournament opens with regional play starting on May 17. True enough, the event will conclude in June at the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City, but the NCAA's basketball tournaments spill over into April and are still known as March Madness, so there's enough leeway for the May Madness tag.

    This blog will be my first installment projecting what the postseason pictures looks like for Southeastern Conference teams. It will surely change in the coming weeks as teams win and lose and strengthen or weaken their resumes.

    The 64-team national championship event starts with 16 regionals of four teams each. The regional winners advance to best-of-three super regional play. The eight super regional winners advance to the World Series, and those team play double-elimination softball until only two remain for a decisive best-of-three series for the national title.

    There are some things you need to know about how the NCAA Tournament field is selected and seeded that will help you understand my projections. It may not operate the way you think it does, or the way you think it should.

    1) There are facilities requirements for teams to host in the postseason. One of those requirements is that the host facility must have lights. The University of California, for instance, would likely be the overall No. 1 seed if the tournament started today, but Cal does not have lights on its field. Unless the Golden Bears address that situation immediately (and some schools have brought in temporary lights to host), they will be on the road from start to finish in NCAA postseason play.

    While that won't directly impact SEC teams in the field, the schools it does affect could ultimately impact when and where some SEC teams play -- a team that doesn't host in the regional round, for instance, could find itself hosting a super regional if paired with a team like Cal, regardless of the seedings.

    2) The NCAA does not generally pit teams from the same conference against each other in regional play, but has been more willing to do so in the super regional round. So you won't be seeing Florida and Georgia, or Alabama and Auburn, in the same four-team regional.

    3) The mandate of the selection committee is to create the best possible bracket with the least number of flights, due to financial considerations. That makes regionals more regional in flavor than you might see in NCAA basketball, or even baseball, postseason play. The NCAA considers any school within a 400-mile radius of a regional host to be within driving distance, meaning that team can bus to the event rather than take a flight.

    The 400-mile guideline can help SEC schools -- there are plenty of quality softball teams that will qualify for the field of 64 within 400 miles of most league schools -- or hurt them. It sometimes happens that a team with a top-eight overall seed gets to host a regional, but finds itself facing a tougher draw that its seed might suggest for geographic reasons.

    This mandate can also create situations where teams that finish lower in conference play might host a regional, while a team from higher in the standings might not -- simply because the lower team had more teams within that 400-mile radius to fill out a regional bracket.

    4) The most important tool used in selecting and seeding teams is the official NCAA Ratings Percentage Index (RPI). This formula -- which considers strength of schedule and winning percentage as its chief factors -- is used to rank teams against each other for selection purposes.

    The RPI considers a team's entire body of work, and outweighs how teams stack up against each other in conference play. So Team A might finish third in the SEC and beat Team B two out of three teams on Team B's home field in league play, but if Team B played a tougher out-of-conference schedule -- or if Team A also had a few unsightly losses to schools ranked far down in the RPI -- then Team B might get a better seeding.

    So here is a look at my personal RPI projections -- in no way endorsed by the SEC -- based on the latest information available (the NCAA RPI was updated through games of April 9) and, to a lesser degree, on how I think the rest of the season might play out. Note that I only projected super regionals for teams that I project to be seeded in the top 16, because it's much harder to guess how the overall pairings will work if a team wins its regional in an upset:
     
    Alabama
    Comment: The Crimson Tide will have a chance to play at home all the way in its bid to earn a trip to Oklahoma City for the World Series.

    Projected seed: No. 2 overall

    Projected NCAA Regional: In Tuscaloosa, with Georgia Tech as the No. 2 seed. UAB and Troy are both alive and in the hunt to earn the third seed, with the Southwestern Athletic Conference champion (Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State are the favorites) as the fourth seed.

    Projected Super Regional: Hosting UCLA -- the Bruins are outside the top 16 right now, but should be able to improve their position just enough by picking up RPI points over the course of the rest of the Pac-12 schedule..
     
    Florida
    Comment: The Gators will have a chance to host in both preliminary postseason rounds if they can hold onto their current position and keep a top-eight seed. Odds are Gainesville will host again.

    Projected seed: No. 5 overall

    Projected NCAA Regional: Hosting South Florida as the No. 2 seed. Central Florida would help the Gators' bid to host if the Golden Knights (currently No. 42 in the RPI) play their way into the NCAA Tournament. If Bethune-Cookman wins the MEAC automatic bid, you can plan on UF hosting.

    Projected NCAA Super Regional: At home against Louisville
     
    Tennessee
    Comment: The Lady Vols are inside the top eight right now, but just barely. To have a chance to host in both the regional and super regional rounds, Tennessee needs to finish out conference play on a strong note.

    Projected seed: No. 7 overall

    Projected NCAA Regional: In Knoxville, with Virginia Tech or North Carolina seeded second. Radford is leading the Big South and has a top-35 RPI to make it a leading candidate for the third seed. Other schools within close driving distance abound: Tennessee-Martin and Jacksonville State are leading the Ohio Valley Conference, South Carolina Upstate is contending in the Atlantic Sun and Chattanooga is the perennial power in the SoCon.

    Projected NCAA Super Regional: Hosting Hawaii
     
    Georgia
    Comment: The Bulldogs are 16th in the RPI right now and should have a good chance of hosting a regional. It will take a surge for Georgia, however, to crack the top eight, but that doesn't necessarily mean UGA can't host in the super regional round.

    Projected seed: No. 16 overall

    Projected NCAA Regional: At home, with Florida State as the second seed. Georgia State of the Colonial Conference and Kennesaw State of the Atlantic Sun could land in Athens if they get automatic bids.

    Projected Super Regional: At home vs. top-seeded California.
     
    LSU
    Comment: The Tigers rate 19th in the current RPI, and can work their way into the top 16 and a better chance to host if they play strong through the remainder of their SEC schedule.

    Projected seed: Second seed at a four-team regional

    Projected NCAA Regional: At Texas A&M, although LSU could host a regional as a No. 2 seed. There's also the possibility that the Tigers could be sent to Lafayette to face cross-state foe ULL -- keep the 400-mile rule in mind here.
     
    Auburn
    Comment: The Tigers are at No. 26 overall in the RPI, so likely won't get to host in the postseason.

    Projected seed: Regional second seed

    Projected NCAA Regional: At Oklahoma
     
    Mississippi State
    Comment: The Bulldogs will benefit from their strength-of-schedule and have been through the toughest part of their SEC slate. With a strong finish, they have a chance to crack the field of 64.

    Projected seed: Regional three seed

    Projected NCAA Regional: On the road, probably way out West. Let's say at Arizona State.
     
    Kentucky, Arkansas, Ole Miss and South Carolina are looking in from the outside right now, but the season is far from over. And any team that can qualify for the SEC Tournament will have a chance to play for the league's automatic bid to the national championship tournament.
     
    SEC softball on Twitter: There are several official softball-specific Twitter accounts where you can sign up to follow the action on your computer, your tablet or your cell phone. Check these out:

    Tennessee: @LadyVol_Sftball
    South Carolina: @GamecockSoftbll
    Ole Miss: @OleMissSB
    Mississippi State: @mstatesb
    LSU: @lsu_softball
    Kentucky: @UKsoftball
    Georgia: @UGASoftball
    Florida: @GatorZoneSBall
    Auburn: @AuburnTigersSB
    Alabama: @AlabamaSB

    Stat of the Week: Mississippi State's Jessica Cooley might be the hottest player in the nation. In her last six at-bats, the junior is 6-for-6 with four home runs, two doubles and seven RBIs. She has become the first MSU player ever to hit two home runs in back-to-back games and is on pace to break the school records for homers.

    Other notable stats: Ole Miss freshman shortstop Allison Brown has 25 hits this season, and has driven in 30 RBIs, second among SEC freshmen. ... Georgia's Ashley Razey has 18 hits this season, with 11 going for extra bases -- including nine home runs. Three of her eight homers and both doubles have come in SEC play, and she has driven in 14 runs in SEC play. ... Florida frosh Bailey Castro tied a school single-game record with seven RBIs last Sunday against Ole Miss, with six of those coming in one inning (a two-run shot and a grand slam). ... Kentucky's Brittany Cervantes hit home runs in three consecutive games to lead the Wildcats past Arkansas after hitting just two in the first 36 games of the season. She is UK's all-time home run leader. ... Arkansas sophomore catcher Jayme Gee's first career home run was a grand slam, coming against Mississippi State last weekend. ... For the first time in Tennessee softball history, the Lady Vols have played two 11-inning games in the same season (against Alabama on March 21 and Georgia on April 4). The Lady Vols also went 10 innings against Auburn (April 7), marking just the second time in UT history and first time since 2004 that the school has played three 10-plus inning games in the same season.
     
    Tommy Deas is executive sports editor of The Tuscaloosa News and has covered SEC softball since 1997