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Breaking Down The Bracket With Division I Softball Committee Chair Brandi Stuart

(Photo Courtesy of Linda Donnelly)

Brandi Stuart is one of the most decorated softball players in Florida State program history. In 2015, Stuart joined Central Florida as Senior Associate Athletics Director for Student-Athlete Welfare and Development and she was promoted to Executive Associate Athletic Director in 2018. She also serves as the Senior Woman Administrator Deputy Title IX Coordinator. She is currently in her first year of a two-year appointment as Chair of the Division I Softball Committee.

Stuart spoke with Softball America on Monday to answer questions regarding the 2019 D-I bracket.

SA: How do you feel since the bracket was released?

BS: I told our group that I’m really proud of the work we’ve done over the course of the season and especially over the last few days. I just appreciated all the due diligence and the attention to detail. I think, for the most part, we did a really good job. I know there are some people who are going to disagree with that but we can never make everyone happy. People don’t always see what we see so they’ll never fully understand how we arrive at the different decision but I’m really proud of the work that we all did.

SA: Can you describe what the process is like to determine the Field of 64?

BS: Each of us has a region, some regions have two committee members assigned to them and then we have a Regional Advisory Committee which is comprised of coaches within that region and we talk once every few weeks with them. We talk about things that are going on with the different teams within our areas respectively, then the national committee gets on a call and we have those discussions with the national committee and we start honing in on a top 30. We go into selection weekend really educated from our coaches on our RAC’s to just the things that we are seeing and talking about. We have access to our nitty gritty sheets from the time March hits. It’s a lot of work throughout the season and the semester.

SA: What is it like heading into selection weekend?

BS: Our job is to select the at-large field. We understand that within that at-large field there may be some AQ’s (Automatic Qualifiers) but our job as the committee is to select the at-large bids. We understand that some AQ’s will be folks we haven’t talked about but that’s where the parity and the availability to the tournament comes in.

SA: There were several mid-major conferences that received at-large bids, is that the parity that the committee is seeing?

BS: I’ve said this, as a former student-athlete and an administrator, parity in all sports specifically Olympic sports is what we need. We need for young women to know that they don’t have to go to one or two conferences in order to compete. I think it speaks to the level of talent. I think it speaks to the level of respect that these young people have and going to these different programs and understanding that they are going to a chance to compete nationally. I love it. I love the parity. I love the diversity within our bracket and the diversity within the top 16.

As we are going through the selection process, our job is to look at the complete body of work. You see SEC teams going across the country to play Pac-12 and Big 12 teams. Probably a couple years ago, they just thought that if they stayed within the P5, they’d be okay but you have a conference (now) like the Mountain West with multiple at-large bids, that gives them an opening to play some of those teams and they become someone those Power 5 schools want to play as well. I just think it says a lot about growth and evolution of the game and the people that play it. It’s not always about the budget. It’s not always about the name on the jersey but about the opportunity to play and kids are starting to see that more now.

SA: How did you determine the order of the Top 16 and who would be the No. 16?

BS: Our process starts from No. 1 which obviously was Oklahoma. From that point, we are going down team by team, comparing Oklahoma to UCLA, Oklahoma to Washington, Oklahoma to Florida State because we want to make sure they are the No. 1 seed.

When we get to No. 2, we do the same thing with UCLA against Washington, UCLA versus Florida State. We do that until there’s a natural break but we do that for at least the next 10 to 12 teams.

Again, with out team sheets it’s a body of work. That includes non-conference and conference. We are also really mindful of not rewarding teams for being in particular conferences or punishing teams for not being in conferences. We try to find equalizers and we have our criteria that keeps us honest and objective in everything that we do.

So, when we get down to schools like JMU and Northwestern, we are looking at their complete body of work. Now when you look at JMU, their schedule isn’t as visually balanced as Northwestern. The reason for that is Northwestern, they have a lot of conference games in the top 20 and top 50. What we do is extract those top 50 conference games and look at what they did non-conference. Now, we are comparing apples to apples.

Unfortunately for JMU, they still didn’t give us enough of a body of work non-conference, we didn’t have enough results to give them the nod. There’s no doubt that they went out there and they played Michigan and they beat them, there’s no doubt that they went out there and played teams that they had to go find and play because their conference isn’t as strong but I believe Northwestern still had four or five more non-conference results after taking Big Ten play out. That’s where Northwestern got the nod. It was a very slight edge over JMU.

SA: Is that what happened with Louisiana too?

BS: A team like Louisiana, in some regards, is like the Minnesota of 2017. They went out and took care of their business. It’s just that unfortunately when you’re comparing bodies of work side to side then you’re getting a different perspective. Quite frankly, we found ourselves splitting hairs to determine which teams were going to get in in front of others and which teams may leap frog others just based on their complete body of work.

SA: Let’s talk last four in and first four out. What were you looking at for those teams?

BS: The last four in and the first out… For the first four out they didn’t give us the results that we needed in a comprehensive fashion to really compare them to the last four that got in. It’s a balance right? You have to schedule but you also have to win some games.

What happens between the last four in and the last four out really comes down to some of those fourth quadrant losses in the 101 and 150-plus. We’re looking for parity, we’re overly evaluating.

For us, the outlier for Southern Illinois was their non-conference win that they had in the top 25 and their non-conference wins in 26-50. They took care of their business and that happened to be the thing that gave them the edge over Oregon State. Albeit, they had a really tough Pac-12 schedule. It was just a lack of results. That’s where that made a difference for us.

SA: How are the Florida Gators the No. 5?

BS: They knew they were getting in. They knew they were going to be a top 16 team. I know that five-seed was a surprise to a lot of folks but we had to look at it this way, Florida played and beat teams that were already in the top four. They did some things that other teams didn’t do.

I know we caught some flack because they lost to Alabama in the regular season but Florida’s worst loss is to a No. 29 RPI team. They got beat up a little in the SEC but they also went out on a ledge and, to me and to the committee, they scheduled themselves for a top eight. By beating Washington, beating Arizona, splitting with Florida State, scheduling UCLA and beating Minnesota and Michigan, all of those are taken into account and that’s what gave them the opportunity to get that No. 5 seed.

SA: What did the committee see from Alabama that caused them to fall to No. 8?

BS: I know people don’t always understand or don’t want to look at it but Alabama is the only team in the top eight with a three-digit non-conference strength of schedule.

We thought that they did enough to deserve the recognition for a top eight but we take into account everything and that includes all four quadrants. They had a really heavy fourth quadrant but they still won their games so they don’t get punished. For us, we can’t go off of the eye test. We have to go off of the information that is given to us to provide a fair and equitable process to everybody.

north georgia softball Photo by Joy Kimbrough_NCAA Photos via Getty Images.jpg

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SA: The story of Missouri this season has been unreal. For them to be the first SEC team to hear their name called seems to bring their season full-circle in a way doesn’t it?

BS: The beauty about what we get to do is that we don’t judge. Missouri played a schedule that was deserving of them to get into the tournament and they earned their ticket just like everyone else did. As long as they are eligible to compete then we will continue to evaluate their work and move forward accordingly but very exciting for them, absolutely!

SA: I think a lot of folks thought Ole Miss was on the hosting bubble after its last 10 games despite having the body of work. Did you take the last 10 games into account?

BS: There were some changes that I made coming into the weekend but when you start comparing teams, and what people sometimes don’t understand is that the RPI… thousandths of decimal places can be the difference between five teams. Teams are just so close and Ole Miss just did what they needed to do and they did a little bit more than the teams compared to them so they got that nod. I know it surprised a lot of folks but it’s the little things that count.

SA: Do the last 10 games really get taken into account then?

BS: We look at it just to see what the trend has been and sometimes that can help paint a picture. Sometimes there are teams that just had a rough go of it like LSU. They had a rough couple of weeks but it doesn’t make or break.

Within our criteria, one thing doesn’t weigh more than the other. One thing doesn’t have priority over another thing but we do try to make sure that everything is taken into account across the board so we can be objective when we are comparing teams.

SA: When it comes to traveling within a region, how is that determined? If some teams are less than an hour or a little over an hour from one host, how do they end up going further away?

BS: We have so many teams in the SEC that are in the top eight and the top 16, part of our job is to mitigate travel and mitigate flights if we can. If there is a team that can travel to multiple places within a region and there are other teams that can’t then some of that goes into account.

We also do our best, as we are placing these teams, that we’re still maintaining the integrity of the bracket so it doesn’t change seeds or anything like that. I think Sharon at the NCAA did a fabulous job because we are at three less flights this year than last year.

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