The University of Kentucky's body of work in the 2018 baseball season might have been good enough many years to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
This year, it was not.
Kentucky finished 34-22 overall. It was ranked No. 32 in the final RPI of the season. The Wildcats won series against four Southeastern Conference teams — Auburn, South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi State — and one non-conference team — Texas Tech — that made the NCAA field. UK also scored non-conference victories against four other teams that made the field of 64 — Houston, Louisville, Morehead State and Indiana.
In the eyes of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee all of those positives could not hold up against one big negative — Kentucky's 13-17 record in the SEC.
"I think anyone who follows college baseball recognizes that Kentucky has a great club," committee chairman Ray Tanner explained during the NCAA Tournament Selection Show on ESPNU on Monday. "But there are some metrics that we look at in the selection room, and one of them is sub-.500 against conference competition, and there's only one team in the field that is sub-.500 against conference competition. It was a glaring weakness against Kentucky. They were tied for the 10th seed going into the SEC Tournament, four games under .500. Unfortunately, they lost their opener, made them five games under. They have a tremendous team, but that is a trend that we're looking at."
The one team with a sub-.500 record to make the field was Texas A&M (39-20), which matched Kentucky's 13-17 conference mark. The Aggies won three games in the SEC Tournament before falling in the semifinals to eventual champion Ole Miss.
Texas A&M was one of 10 SEC schools to make the NCAA field, tying the record for the most from one conference. Joining the Aggies were No. 1 overall seed Florida, No. 4 Ole Miss, No. 5 Arkansas and No. 8 Georgia, along with Auburn, LSU, South Carolina, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt.
Kentucky opened the season 14-2 but finished 20-20 as the Wildcats were sidetracked by injuries to their pitching staff late in the season. UK was swept in three games at Vanderbilt in its final regular-season series, then fell to Auburn in 11 innings in its SEC Tournament opener.
Tanner, the former head coach at South Carolina, said on ESPNU that different selection committees value different metrics from year to year. He said this year's committee placed significant emphasis on conference record.
"We were rewarding teams that finished well in their conference, whether it was regular season, tournament or both," he said. "It did factor into it a bit more. The sub-.500 record in your conference is starting to be a glaring weakness."
Kentucky's Nick Mingione led the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament super-regional round in his first season as head coach in 2017. The Wildcats were ranked among the nation's top 10 early this season before slumping down the stretch.
"While we are disappointed with the outcome, we are incredibly appreciative of the immense support we received this season from the #BBN and beyond," The UK baseball Twitter account posted Monday. "We will hold our heads high and continue to build this program as we move forward. Thank you! #WeAreUK."
Kentucky will go on without seniors Luke Becker, Luke Heyer, Alec Maley, Troy Squires and Brad Schaenzer. The Wildcats could also lose key juniors such as Tristan Pompey, Sean Hjelle, Kole Cottam, Justin Lewis and Zach Haake to the Major League Baseball Draft.
But there is hope for the future. The Wildcats' 2017 recruiting class was ranked No. 12 in the nation by Perfect Game, and its' 2018 class stands at No. 22. And when the 2019 season begins, Kentucky will be playing in a new $49 million stadium on Alumni Drive, which is replacing its longtime campus home, Cliff Hagan Stadium.
Morehead State, Louisville in
Morehead State, which secured its NCAA Tournament bid with a dramatic championship game win in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament on Sunday, is headed to the Clemson Regional.
Morehead (37-24) is the No. 4 seed in the regional. The Eagles will face region host and top seed Clemson (45-14) in their opening game on Friday at 6 p.m. The double-elimination regional also includes No. 2 seed Vanderbilt (31-25) and No. 3 St. John's (39-15). Clemson is the No. 10 overall seed in the tournament.
Louisville (43-17) earned an at-large bid and is one of six Atlantic Coast Conference teams in the field.
The Cardinals, the No. 2 seed in the Lubbock Regional, will open against No. 3 Kent State (39-16) on Friday at 7. No. 1 Texas Tech (39-17) and No. 4 New Mexico State (40-20) face off in the other first-round game. Texas Tech is the No. 9 overall seed in the tournament.