Nearly seven years have passed since Notre Dame last qualified for the NCAA Baseball Tournament. The Fighting Irish built a strong early season resume to make a return to the tournament in 2013, but with NCAA selection Monday a week away they have work to do to ensure a bid as they prepare to begin the Big East Tournament on Wednesday.
The Irish (31-23, 10-14 Big East) open play in Clearwater, Fla as the No. 7 seed in the conference tournament and will face No. 2 Seton Hall (36-17, 18-6) in the 1 p.m. ET game Wednesday afternoon. No. 3 seed Pittsburgh (40-15, 18-6) and No. 6 St. John's (23-33, 10-14) are the other two teams on Notre Dame's side of the bracket in the double-elimination tournament.
No. 1 Louisville (46-10, 20-4), No. 4 USF (35-20, 17-7), No. 5 Rutgers (26-28, 14-10), and No. 8 UConn (30-26, 9-15) are on the other side of the bracket. The winner from each pool of four teams advances to play a winner take all championship game at Noon Sunday (ESPNU).
Notre Dame's pool of four teams is a very winnable bracket, but the Irish went just 3-6 against the other three teams in the pool during the regular season. ND took two of three from the Pirates in their Big East-opening series back in mid-March. They lost all three games at Pittsburgh and dropped two of three to the Red Storm in New York last weekend.
Head coach Mik Aoki's third team at Notre Dame built a 12-5 record from late February through mid March and they did it against quality competition. Five of those 12 wins came against teams that are currently ranked in the top-60 in the most recent NCAA RPI, including Virginia Tech (13), two wins over Cal Poly (32), Oklahoma (45), and Ohio State (58).
The win in the Seton Hall series also proved to be quality, because the Pirates currently boast a No. 34 RPI. The Fighting Irish also have a win over No. 38 Michigan State to their credit (they also have "quality losses" to No. 16 UCLA and No. 24 Mercer (the Atlantic Sun regular season champion) and No. 21 Louisville.
A win over Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament opener and a potential second round win over Pitt would go a long way toward boosting Notre Dame's at-large stock if they do not win the tourney. While the Panthers swept the Irish and finished tied for second in the regular season Big East standings, they currently sport just a No. 64 RPI. USF finished in fourth place and took two of three from ND, but their current RPI ranks just 65th.
While the Irish earned the big early season wins, they also have their share of bad losses that have hurt their overall at-large possibilities. Among them are two losses to Michigan, a loss to Toledo, a loss to Eastern Michigan, the two losses to St. John's, and two losses in their final Big East series at Cincinnati this past weekend.
Notre Dame is just 8-7 overall this season against teams that rank 101-200 in RPI and is 9-3 against teams with an RPI of 200 or worse. They are also 10-15 on the road and have won just four of their last 10 games overall. Notre Dame's RPI took a fall to No. 42 from No. 31 with the losses to the Red Storm and is likely to drop again after the two losses to the Bearcats.
The Fighting Irish ended the regular season ranked 6th in batting average (.279), 9th (of 10 teams) in runs scored (277), and 6th in ERA (3.88) in the Big East in 2013.
Notre Dame's last Big East Championship came in 2006. It ended an unprecedented run of five consecutive Big East Conference Tournament titles for the Fighting Irish. The Irish were sent to the Lexington Regional that season, losing to the College of Charleston in 16 innings before being eliminated by the host Wildcats the next day.