With conference tournaments starting this week and the Division I softball selection show set for Sunday, it's almost NCAA tournament time. These are the three biggest questions we have ahead of the 2019 bracket reveal.
How many SEC teams will make the tournament?
Sixty-four softball teams will qualify for this year's NCAA tournament. But of those teams, how many will come from the sport's most dominant conference? Last year, all 13 SEC teams qualified for the national tournament. But this year, three of those 13 sit outside the top 25, with one of them, Texas A&M, not receiving any votes. The Aggies have struggled as of late, and Wednesday's SEC tournament first round loss to Mississippi State does not help their chances of earning a tournament bid on Sunday.
On the other end of the SEC spectrum is No. 4 Alabama, a team that has already built an impressive 2019 resume that the team capped off with an SEC title over the weekend. Alabama holds the highest national ranking of any SEC team, and starts the tournament as the No. 1 seed. However, No. 9 Florida, No. 10 LSU, No. 11 Tennessee and No. 13 Georgia could also be in the hunt for a conference title.
This conference is deep, and the quantity of teams in the top 15 is just one indication of this strength. SEC players lead the nation in home runs, home runs per game and on-base percentage, setting the stage for an exciting conference battle. The SEC champion earns an automatic bid, but that will leave the rest of those top-15 teams looking for an at-large bid. Last year, nine of the 13 qualifying SEC teams earned a seed in the national tournament. The question this year is not just how many will be seeded, but how many will qualify? No. 17 Ole Miss, No. 19 Arkansas, No. 20 South Carolina, No. 23 Kentucky and No. 24 Auburn are all squeezed into the national standings and will hope to hear their names called on Sunday.
What seed will UCLA earn?
At one point this season, the Bruins were a national championship favorite. UCLA went undefeated through its first sixteen games — picking up victories against ranked teams Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Florida — before suffering its first loss of the season to Michigan on March 1. This year seemed to be UCLA's for the taking.
But all of that was before the team lost to Oregon in April, after which UCLA ceded the top spot to Oklahoma. The Bruins went on to pick up their third loss of the season — and second to an unranked opponent — and the hands of Stanford in early May.
Now the Bruins sit at third in the NFCA poll behind Oklahoma and fellow Pac-12 competitor Washington.
2019 NCAA SOFTBALL TOURNAMENT: Bracket, schedule, teams
Without a conference tournament on the schedule, UCLA will look to wrap up its regular season with a series sweep of Arizona as it awaits the committee's decision. Three wins against the Wildcats will help UCLA, but the big question is whether or not that will be enough to push UCLA to the No. 2 overall seed. Washington will play Stanford this weekend. A loss could move the Huskies to third and elevate UCLA, but a win might be enough to keep them ahead of the Bruins. The only thing UCLA can do is look for an Arizona sweep and hope for that No. 2 overall seed.
Which Cinderella team will have the best chance of winning a regional?
With 32 automatic qualifiers in the bracket, lesser-known programs have the chance to make their marks on the national tournament. Last year, the only teams to advance to the super regional level came from the Pac-12, SEC, Big 12 and ACC. But in 2016, James Madison and Louisiana proved that the CAA and the Sun Belt conferences could compete at the highest level. Those two teams advanced to the Super Regionals, and are favorites in their conference tournaments this year. A win in their respective conference brackets puts both these programs back in the tournament as they chase their first NCAA titles.
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James Madison and Louisiana, though, aren't necessarily Cinderella programs. The fun part about this tournament is watching teams like Prairie View A&M University, which won its first conference tournament in 20 years last season to earn a spot on the national stage. The Lady Panthers ultimately fell to Texas A&M and Baylor in the NCAA tournament, but their run excited a university and a fan base that hadn't seen a tournament appearance since 1998. Who's going to surprise us this year?
The road to Oklahoma City is never easy, but anyone in the tournament has a chance to create its own legendary Cinderella story.