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Bulls back in NCAA Regionals

Imagine Eddie Cardieri last season in his office waiting for the NCAA Regional Tournament Selection Show to deliver the news of whether his 33-31 2001 baseball team would have an extension to its season. Tension built in the room as bracket after bracket was announced. It seemed that the nervous apprehension was melting away into a small lump of disappointment. That is until the 16th and final bracket, the Wilson, N.C. bracket, included the Bulls.

This year, the wait wasn’t so intense for Cardieri, as USF went as the No. 3 seed to the first announced bracket, the Tallahassee bracket hosted by No. 1 Florida State. The bracket also includes two familiar faces in No. 4 seed Stetson and No. 2 seed, the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament champions, Central Florida.

“I was psyched (at the announcement),” Cardieri said. “This year we got it out of the way early going in the first bracket. They didn’t even put our name on the screen before they announced it. It was a great feeling.” “Last year, we were like the last bracket announced. It felt great to be in the first group,” he continued.

South Florida finished the season 33-27, seventh in Conference USA. Tournament champion East Carolina eliminated the Bulls in the tournament semifinals. They struggled to finish above .500 during the regular season with an 18-16 record in conference.

These are the struggles the Bulls take into the regionals. These are the aspects of the season that certain critics are waving as a banner and screaming for changes in the selection process. For example, in an article on the Baseball America Web site Monday night, John Manuel decided to wave the banner of injustice right in the direction of South Florida.

“The teams that made it got in solely on RPI strength. South Florida finished seventh in Conference USA, certainly a strong league but not one in which the seventh-place team should be rewarded. With a 37 RPI or not, South Florida has to be shocked to receive a bid,” Manuel said.

South Florida isn’t the only team Manuel and others are citing, but when it comes to the Bulls deservedness to get a bid, the arguments seem a little weak. As to his first comment about teams earning a regional berth based solely on their RPI, he is absolutely correct.

But the RPI is what teams are judged on; that is why a team like South Florida chooses to fill its non-conference schedule with teams like Florida, Stetson and UCF. As for being ranked seventh in C-USA and earning a berth, why shouldn’t the conference that Baseball America ranked fifth in strength earn five spots in a 64-team field? As for the seventh ranking, between third and seventh in the conference only three games separated the pack. USF took 2-of-3 from nationally ranked No. 7 Houston (who won the C-USA regular season title) as well as winning all four meetings against conference runner-up Louisville during the year.

Critics seem to be crying, “Geography be damned, it doesn’t matter where a team plays.” That argument is shot to pieces by the number of Florida teams that made the tournament, nine teams from the state in all. The Bulls took on five of the nine this season including a sweep of defending national champion Miami (30-26), whose berth is not being nearly as contested despite having no conference affiliations and nothing else to determine its strength against other than the difficulty of where and who they play.

“Nine teams from this state are in the regionals,” Cardieri said. “We all play each other and spend all season beating the heck out of each other.”

Of all the critical comments being raised toward USF, this is the only one that really disturbs Cardieri.

“Anybody can beat anybody in this state,” Cardieri said. “But facing the teams that we do in this state is why we get into the tournament.”

As for the rest of the comments, Cardieri handles it like any other coach would – he has games to play.

“There is always going to be those criticisms,” he said. “All I can say is I’m glad that they reward you for playing good schedule. Because if they didn’t, everyone would schedule light and build up 40 to 45 wins. It flat out doesn’t work that way. We played a good schedule period.”