For the 3rd consecutive year, there isn’t a Big Ten representative among the final 16 teams standing in college baseball.

If this were to happen in basketball, there would be reason to panic. Or in football, if we shrunk it down to 3 consecutive years without a B1G team in the Playoff (4-team edition.)

But baseball, to use an on-the-nose analogy, gets a free pass.

The challenges of staying nationally competitive in the sport are very real when the season begins in February. There’s a reason every big-league team is in Arizona and Florida that time of year. It’s crazy to contemplate the likes of Rutgers or Michigan State playing a home game while snowbirds are escaping the north.

Until college baseball’s rules-makers shift the start of the season, the Big Ten will never be a power player in the sport. Seemingly every time a northern team makes the College World Series, the coach notes that it would happen more often if the schedule moved back even a couple of weeks. But it never does.

Maybe that day will come.

It’s about to come in college football, where we will eventually see the schedule move up a week to accommodate the 12-team Playoff. Football has a lot more pull than baseball, so the machinations of tweaking the baseball schedule 2 weeks in the other direction feel decidedly more manageable.

It would certainly benefit the game more than, say, banning props that celebrate home runs. But that’s another story.

For now, there’s no use wondering about a theoretical future landscape. Big Ten baseball coaches can only deal with the cards in their hand.

And despite 3 teams coming up short in regionals, this year showed that Big Ten baseball is actually on the upswing.

That number — 3 teams in the NCAA Tournament — is a start.

A year ago, the B1G was only a multi-bid league because Michigan won the conference tournament. Rutgers was unthinkably left home, because you can get away with jerking a Big Ten team’s chain.

Perhaps that is no longer the case.

This season, the B1G would have been a 4-bid league had someone other than Maryland, Iowa or Indiana won the conference tourney. All 3 sufficiently took care of business with their nonconference strength of schedule and on-field results.

Another number of importance: 6.

As a whole, the B1G ranks 6th among all conferences in RPI this season. That’s up from 8th last year and 11th in 2021. That’s a pretty impressive rise, especially considering it’s pulled down by the dead weight of a Northwestern program that went 10-40 and ranked 261st nationally.

The B1G ranks only behind the SEC, ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and Sun Belt — all leagues where, for the most part, it’s possible to play year-round outside without too much discomfort.

Hosting would help

It’s no secret that hosting a regional is a recipe for postseason success, though not a guarantee. This year, 9 of the 16 hosts advanced to the Super Regionals.

Perhaps no team in this NCAA Tournament was more done in by homefield advantage than Iowa.

Hosting a regional was a once-in-a-generation event for Indiana State, and the atmosphere in Terre Haute was off the charts. The host Sycamores won their first 2 games thanks to 8th-inning rallies, and the energy from their home crowd was instrumental to both. It rattled the road teams and boosted the Sycamores.

If the Hawkeyes ever hosted a regional, you could bet the same would be true in Iowa City.

But hosting is an uphill battle for Big Ten baseball teams. Since 2016, only Minnesota (2018) and Maryland (2022) have earned national seeds and the right to play at home.

The scheduling advantage inherent to southern schools allows a team like Auburn to host despite an underwhelming 34-21 record that was exposed in the regional as the Tigers went 0-2. Big Ten teams have little hope of hosting with anything more than 13 losses.

It takes a very special season for a B1G team to earn homefield; a merely very good season isn’t nearly enough.

Will USC and UCLA tilt the table?

Next season will be the last year of the Big Ten as we currently know it. And on the surface, that may turn out being a good thing for Big Ten baseball.

USC and UCLA are tradition-rich programs with a combined 26 College World Series appearances. (The Trojans owned college baseball in the 1970s and are responsible for 21 of those appearances, but haven’t gotten to Omaha since 2001.)

The Bruins and Trojans figure to boost the league’s profile on their own merits. Their presence could theoretically also crack open the SoCal talent pipeline to the benefit of their new peers. There’s also a good chance that some B1G teams will play early-season conference games in sunny California.

We could see Big Ten baseball teams reaching a level of prominence unseen since the 1960s, when Ohio State, Minnesota and Michigan each won national championships.

But that is far from a guaranteed outcome. It’s also possible that the ridiculous travel burden facing the Los Angeles teams will harm them in recruiting. Coaches at programs like Cal State Fullerton and UC-Irvine are probably overjoyed at what this could mean for them in recruiting.

Hey kid, you wanna spend a mid-March weekend series at Hawaii, or in West Lafayette?”

Most of those recruits won’t need to overthink that one.

Regardless of what UCLA and USC bring to the B1G, the overall health of the baseball product is improving. And at some point, that’s going to pay dividends payable in a trip to Omaha.