FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas outfielder Matt Vinson said the Razorbacks are frustrated they won’t be playing at Baum Stadium this week.
They felt like they earned a chance to serve as one of the NCAA’s 16 hosts after finishing third in the Southeastern Conference standings and reaching last week’s SEC Tournament semifinals. But Vinson said it also didn’t take Arkansas long to turn its frustration into motivation as it prepares to play elsewhere later this week.
"We’re going to go out on the road and we are going to play with a chip on our shoulder just like we always do," Vinson said. "We feel like we kind of get overlooked around the country so we’re just going to play like we always do."
Arkansas’ NCAA Tournament road will begin later this week in Manhattan, Kan., where they’ll play in a four-team regional hosted by No. 1 seed Kansas State. The Razorbacks (37-20) will begin the double-elimination regional with an opening game against No. 3 seed Bryant (44-16-1), which is in the NCAA Tournament field for the first time after winning the Northeast Conference championship on Sunday.
Kansas State (41-17) will play No. 4 seed Wichita State (39-26) in the regional opener Friday at 2 p.m., while Arkansas and Bryant will play at 7 p.m. The winner of the four-team regional will advance to play the winner of the Corvalis (Ore.) Regional, which is being hosted by No. 3 national seed Oregon State (45-10).
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said the Razorbacks are disappointed they’re on the road for the third straight season. But he also believes his team is determined to show it was a mistake as they try to get back to the College World Series.
"I think the team is very confident and looking forward to getting up there and playing," Van Horn said Monday. "We’ve been waiting on this all year."
The Razorbacks were one of nine Southeastern Conference teams to reach the NCAA Tournament field. It includes four regional hosts Vanderbilt, LSU, Mississippi State and South Carolina. The Gamecocks earned a regional host spot despite being swept by the Razorbacks during the regular season, finishing behind Arkansas in the SEC regular season standings and going 0-2 in the SEC Tournament.
Arkansas’ RPI was to blame. The Razorbacks finished No. 31, while South Carolina was No. 13. The lowest RPI hosting a regional is Kansas State (No. 18).
Van Horn was told Arkansas’ RPI was affected most by early-season losses to Pacific (No. 244) and Western Illinois (No. 257). He said Arkansas might have had an RPI inside the top 20 if not for those losses. But NCAA Tournament selection committee chairman Dennis Farrell also said nonconference strength of schedule hurt.
The Razorbacks went 1-6 in nonconference games outside of Baum Stadium. The one win came against Mississippi Valley State (No. 297 RPI) in North Little Rock.
"They had a non-conference strength schedule of 291 out of 296 teams and they were just 1-6 in the non-conference away from home," Farrell said of Arkansas’ postseason resume. "I think that’s probably what played against Arkansas the most was from that standpoint."
Van Horn acknowledged how damaging the RPI was to the Razorbacks and hinted about scheduling changes for the future. One of his initial thoughts: Playing more road games in nonconference play instead of neutral site tournaments. He still believed Arkansas accomplished enough to deserve one of the 16 host sites, though.
"Realistically, I felt like we would get one," Van Horn said. "But we didn’t and that’s the way it goes. Our focus right now is to find out as much as we can about Bryant and the other two teams there and get ready to go play."
Bryant, which is located in Smithfield, R.I., won its first NEC championship with four games in four days last week. It include an 8-0 win against Sacred Heart — which had won the previous two NEC championships — in the conference title game.
Pitching has been key for the Bulldogs. The Razorbacks enter the NCAA Tournament with the nation’s top earned run average (1.87), but Bryant is 10th (2.63 ERA). The Bryant staff has hurled nine shutouts this season.
"You don’t win that many games unless you can pitch," Van Horn said. "Just looking at some numbers on them just real quick, it looks like they’ve got three pitchers that have 13, 14 starts each and I don’t know who they’ll throw at us. They have good numbers on the mound, so it looks like their team is a lot like ours."
So Arkansas pitcher Barrett Astin said the Razorbacks won’t take Bryant — or anyone else in the Manhattan Regional — lightly this week.
The approach worked last season, when Arkansas went 3-0 in the Houston Regional as the No. 2 seed. The Razorbacks beat No. 3 seed Sam Houston State twice and No. 1 seed Rice to advance to a Super Regional against Baylor. The Razorbacks then won two out of three games in the series to reach the College World Series.
Astin said Arkansas has the talent to do it again. He said the motivation is there as well after the Razorbacks — who Astin described as "back porch guys" — weren’t selected as a regional host once again this season.
"Nobody ever sees us," Astin said. "Nobody ever talks about us. They don’t expect much from us. But if we make it, we’re not surprised."