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‘Irritated’ by NCAA Tournament seeding, Mike Candrea says Pac-12 softball needs more self-promotion

Photo by Ryan Kelapire

When Washington softball was announced as the 16-seed in the NCAA Tournament, there was no celebrating at their viewing party. Only disgust.

Before the rest of their regional could be unveiled on the ESPN2 broadcast, the Huskies had already stormed out of the picture, disrespected by what they just saw.

Despite having multiple teams ranked in the top-8 over the course of the season, including Washington, the Pac-12 only placed one team in the top-8 of the NCAA Tournament: No. 2 UCLA.

In Tucson, Mike Candrea, whose Arizona team was chosen as the 11-seed, was just as miffed by the selection committee’s evaluations.

“I wish I was in the room to hear the conversations, which makes it tough for me to say things, but I know our conference and I know our conference is much better than what it was shown today, and it irritates me,” he said. “I kind of felt like Washington when they walked out. I thought that was probably the right thing to do at that time because it just doesn’t make sense.”

Washington entered the final weekend of the regular season ranked No. 5 in the NFCA Coaches Poll. Two losses at Stanford on Friday surely sank the Huskies’ postseason profile but not enough to warrant such a gap between ranking and seeding, according to Candrea.

“I do a ranking every week for USA Softball, so I kind of compare what my rankings were and today I just did one, and the first five I was pretty accurate,” he said. “Then after that, man, it was like: How can Washington be a 16-seed? That hurts. And then to send Oregon to Texas? Come on.”

Oregon, ranked No. 11 in the Coaches Poll, missed out on a top-16 seed entirely and was sent to Austin, where they’ll try to get past No. 12 seed Texas. To pour extra salt in the Ducks’ wound, they’ll have to face former head coach Mike White, who left Oregon for the Texas job in 2018.

Then there’s Arizona State, which received the No. 15 seed despite being ranked No. 12 in the Coaches Poll. If the Sun Devils get through Regionals, they’ll likely be rewarded with a Super Regional date against UCLA, which swept ASU in four games earlier this spring.

Meanwhile, the SEC secured six of the top nine seeds in the tournament, including No. 7 LSU which has a 32-19 record and ranked 16th in the Coaches Poll.

“To be honest with you, I’m so disappointed,” UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said on ESPN. “In all the years of being a part of this, to have the Pac-12 disrespected to this level, I’m shocked. There were four to five teams that were in the top eight for the majority of the year, and we played each other, and we actually played more games to strengthen our schedule against each other. So I’m shocked and I’m very disappointed.”

While the SEC does have the RPI numbers to back up the seedings, that metric was not expected to be weighed as heavily this season because of how COVID-19 impacted scheduling. For instance: in 2020, Washington faced nine ranked opponents in the non-conference season. In 2021, they played none.

It wasn’t just the Pac-12 who felt slighted Sunday evening. The Big Ten, which wasn’t even allowed to play non-conference games or its conference tournament, placed zero teams in the NCAA Tournament’s top-16.

Michigan, the Big Ten champion, will travel to Seattle as the No. 2 seed in the Huskies’ region. The winner will likely get the daunting task of facing No. 1 seed Oklahoma in Supers.

Candrea pointed to the discrepancy in media coverage to explain the seeding disparity between conferences, saying the Pac-12, which just introduced a new commissioner, needs to generate more exposure for its programs.

“Because it’s broken right now,” he said. “It is a conference of champions, but you can’t just sit on a conference of champions. We’ve got to do much more. When I turn on the SEC Network, they’ve got a show that looks like ESPN and they’ve got every highlight of every game going on in baseball and softball. I mean, it’s a big production and obviously that’s going to catch eyes. And unfortunately, you turn on the Pac-12 Network right now and all you see is a bunch of replays of games that have already been done. And people are smart enough right now to know that because of social media. They’re pretty updated on things, and yeah it’s pretty prehistoric right now. We need to do something to fix it.”

In the meantime, all the Pac-12 can do is let its play do the talking.

“One year, I was sent to Florida State and back in the day I thought, ‘Why the hell am I going to Florida State?’” Candrea said. “But it turned out to be a great thing because we were playing (the Women’s College World Series) in Atlanta that year. And we ended up going to Florida State, winning that regional and drove over to Georgia and won a national championship. So I think it’s a great opportunity for our kids. I think they’re battle tested right now.”

And perhaps a little extra motivated.

“I hope the Pac-12 comes in and shows what they are capable of doing because it was a very challenging year and we have some great teams in the Pac,” Inouye-Perez said. “So, we’re all in. It’s a new season. Bring it and let the best teams get to the end.”