The Knights’ wild win at Florida Atlantic Tuesday night put them at 32-19, now winners of five in a row and seven of their last eight.
The Houston series is big for both teams as they are both on the bubble. Here’s a breakdown of the American Athletic Conference’s NCAA Tournament outlook:
East Carolina will be in the tournament and has a strong chance to be top-8 national seed. But after that it is very murky. UCF, Houston and UConn are the only teams with an RPI better than 50. The next best RPI after that is Tulane at 8,4 which seems to high for an at-large bid despite currently being in third place in American.
Here’s a look at the resume of bubble teams in the American in comparison to other bubble teams:
AAC vs. Non-AAC Bubble Teams
- The American is the 5th-rated conference in College Baseball behind the Pac-12 (4th), ACC (3rd), Big 12 (2nd), and SEC (1st). Of note: The American is ahead of the MVC (6th), Big Ten (7th), WCC (8th), Sun Belt (9th), MWC (10th), and C-USA (11th). The Big West is rated 13th.
- UCF’s top 25 RPI wins are at Miami and at home vs. Auburn. Top 50 wins include wins at FAU Tuesday night as well as wins at Florida and UConn. The Knights also have a win at Florida State, who is currently 57 in RPI. Keep in mind that UConn beat UCF 2 of 3 at UCF earlier this season. UCF won 2 of 3 at Tulane a couple of weeks ago. UConn is at Tulane this week, perhaps needing 2 of 3 to secure an NCAA Tournament berth.
What the Knights do not have is a significant series win this season. That is where this series against Houston comes in.
Last season, the NCAA Baseball committee made it a point of emphasis that teams that were under .500 in conference should not make the NCAA Tournament. UCF went 13-10 last season and 0-2 in the conference tournament and still missed the NCAAs.
UCF must win this series with Houston. A loss in this series means more than likely that UCF would have to win the Conference Tournament and the automatic bid.
If UCF wins 2 of 3 vs. Houston, that would give them the signature series weekend win. But it would leave them at 11-13. Would that be enough? No. UCF would need to get some wins in Clearwater. How many? That may depend on who they draw and beat. One thing is for sure: if UCF goes 0-2 again in Clearwater, that would finish their chances of an NCAA Tournament. A run into finals or at least semifinal Saturday may be what is needed.
But if UCF were to sweep Houston, that would put them at 12-12, and perhaps UCF would just need to win two games in Clearwater to be in the NCAA Tournament.
Welcome back, Coach
Regardless it all starts with the Houston series, which marks the return of Terry Rooney, who was the Knights’ Head Coach from 2009-2016 and helped turn around UCF’s program, leading the Knights to the NCAA Tournament in 2011, which was first time UCF had been in the NCAA Tournament since 2004.
The peak of the Rooney Era came in 2012, when the Knights went 45-17 and came within one win of the program’s first Super Regional appearance in 2012. UCF only needed one win against Stony Brook after winning the first two games in the regional. The Knights unfortunately lost two straight to Stony Brook, who would than go on to Baton Rouge and upset LSU to make it to Omaha and the College World Series.
Rooney’s UCF never recovered from those two losses as it never made it back to the NCAA Tournament under his leadership.
Rooney is now in his second season as the pitching coach at Houston and makes his first return to UCF since leaving the Knights’ program after the 2016 season to take an assistant coach job at Alabama.
When Rooney left, UCF hired Greg Lovelady, who had just led Wright State to a regional final in 2016 at Louisville.
Lovelady would lead a UCF team that was predicted to finish near the bottom of the AAC in the preseason to an American Athletic Conference Championship and the NCAA Tournament in 2017.
Now in his third season, Lovelady is looking to lead the Knights to final push to make the NCAAs for the second time in three seasons with a big series against the guy he replaced in the opposite dugout this week. With that storyline and postseason implications, this is arguably the third-biggest home series in the last 14 years for UCF.
The two series that were bigger?
The second biggest was in 2012 when UCF hosted Rice with the C-USA regular season title on the line. UCF would win the first game of the series only to lose the last two to Rice to give Wayne Graham and the Owls the regular season title.
The biggest home series of all-time at UCF Baseball came in 2017 when the Knights hosted the Bulls with the American regular season championship on the line. It would go down to the last game where UCF would come out on top to win the American regular season title.
While there will be no conference title on the line this week, it is still a huge series as the winner takes a huge step toward the NCAA Tournament and builds momentum going into Clearwater next week for the AAC Tournament. UCF could finish as high as third in American with a sweep of Houston with help, or finish as low as 8th.
In some ways that is very fitting for the season the Knights have had.