Hickey: B1G avoids snubs and other key takeaways from NCAA Baseball Tournament reveal
There was no reason for anybody in Bloomington or Iowa City to be nervous Monday as the NCAA Baseball Tournament selection show aired. The Hoosiers and Hawkeyes had already done more than enough to earn inclusion in the 2023 regionals.
But after last year, you’d understand if that wasn’t actually the case.
In 2022, Rutgers lost the Big Ten Tournament final to Michigan. It was a mild disappointment, but the 44-15 Scarlet Knights left Omaha thinking they were NCAA Tournament bound.
Little did Rutgers realize it was actually playing for its NCAA Tournament life in the Big Ten title game. Despite leading the nation in runs scored and boasting a top-10 winning percentage, the Scarlet Knights were not selected.
The stunning snub left serious questions about what exactly a northern baseball team could do to impress a set of metrics loaded against scheduling regional schools during the week.
Fortunately, Iowa and Indiana did not have to relive that episode this year. They are joined by Maryland as the B1G landed 3 teams in the NCAA Tournament.
The Hawkeyes were in the next-to-last regional announced on TV, but head to Indiana State as the No. 2 seed in the Terre Haute Regional.
Iowa is 33rd nationally in RPI compared to Rutgers’ 42nd last season. Hawkeyes coach Rick Haller gamed the system in Iowa’s favor this year, with an early-season win over LSU helping offset the necessity of scheduling local non-Division I opponents like Coe College and Loras College.
Indiana’s RPI of 30 is actually the Big Ten’s best. IU coach Jeff Mercer crucially opened the season with series at Auburn and Texas. Even though the Hoosiers went 2-4 in those games, it helped set them up for success with the selection committee.
Indiana heads to Kentucky as the No. 3 seed in the Lexington Regional, opening the postseason against No. 2 West Virginia.
RPI still needs tweaking
It’s clear that Big Ten coaches saw what happened to Rutgers last year and did not sit idly by waiting for the same fate.
That includes the Scarlet Knights, who beefed up their nonconference schedule like post-1999 Barry Bonds. Rutgers actually led the B1G in nonconference strength of schedule. The Scarlet Knights ranked 41st in that metric after finishing 238th last season.
Unfortunately, Rutgers wasn’t able to recapture the winning magic of last season. The Knights weren’t even a bubble team, finishing 33-23 overall with a 14-10 record in conference play.
But it seems safe to say their anguish from a year ago served to put Big Ten baseball in a better position in 2023.
It shouldn’t have to be that way, though.
The RPI system still carries a regional bias that gives midwestern and northeastern schools an uphill battle.
Maryland, clearly the Big Ten’s best team this season, didn’t even come close to hosting a regional because it has the No. 35 RPI. That put the Terps behind Iowa and Indiana despite going a combined 6-1 against those teams this season. They also landed the toughest draw, heading to No. 1 overall seed Wake Forest’s regional.
That there should be enough to suggest the math is flawed.
NCAA baseball selection committee chairman John Cohen, a former coach at Kentucky and Mississippi State, admitted as much on the selection show.
“Basketball has done a great job changing it from RPI to NET,” Cohen said. “Baseball, as we know, is a geographical sport. There are advantages to warmer weather. We see it in the southeast and out west… But we currently have an RPI, and we can’t move the goal posts midstream.
“But in the future, there’s things that can be done and will be done by the baseball committee.”
A vision for the future
The most interesting potential solution is one offered by Kansas State coach Pete Hughes.
Hughes, correctly sensing that his team would likely be on the wrong side of the bubble — the Wildcats were among the first 4 teams out — suggested that the bottom 4 or 5 teams on a schedule not be factored into a team’s RPI.
.@KStateBSB head coach Pete Hughes pushed for being able to drop your bottom four or five RPI games from your resume. Said regionality of schedules sometimes forces teams to play lower RPI teams in their area.
— Kendall Rogers (@KendallRogers) May 27, 2023
The concept is not unlike how scoring is done in college golf, where every team uses 5 golfers but only the top 4 scores count toward the team total.
It just makes sense.
Take Maryland, which is penalized in RPI for playing 2 games against No. 175 UMBC.
It makes all the sense in the world for the Terps to play a midweek home-and-home against an in-state school. Especially when 1 of those games is on March 7 and has a pretty high probability of never happening because of weather. You aren’t going to get an opponent that needs to fly to Maryland midweek in early March.
With Hughes’ suggested tweak, neither game would count against Maryland’s RPI. And if that’s the case, the Terps are likely in a deserved conversation about being a regional host.
It also benefits programs like UMBC and its equivalents across the northern half of the country.
The current system incentivizes avoiding those types of teams. But in the north, the most important thing isn’t who you play in March — it’s simply getting the game in. Teams should be able to do that without worrying about getting dinged on Selection Monday.
Iowa and Indiana were able to avoid selection day drama this year. A subtle fix to the system would surely help put more B1G teams in that position in the future.