Rutgers gets hosed as NCAA Tournament selection committee slaps northern baseball in face
If you’re a Big Ten baseball fan, it’s time to start burning as many fossil fuels as possible. Because if we get this planet hot enough, maybe college baseball’s northern teams will actually have a shot at scheduling the opponents deemed respectable by the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
Unfortunately for the 2022 Rutgers Scarlet Knights, the advent of tropical Piscataway won’t get here soon enough. Despite a school-record 44 wins, the Scarlet Knights weren’t invited to this year’s NCAA baseball regionals. Rutgers has the most wins of any team that did not get into the field.
It’s a hose job of epic proportions. And the Scarlet Knights didn’t just get the hose; they got the whole hydrant.
Sure. Baseball isn’t the Big Ten’s strong suit. There’s a reason Major League teams don’t hold spring training on the Jersey Shore. For a season that’s halfway through by the end of March, elite prospects will choose any climate where it doesn’t feel like your hands have been electrocuted on a foul tip. Heck, even New Jersey legend Mike Trout had decided to fly south to play college baseball in North Carolina before the MLB came calling.
Despite its climate-related challenges, the quality of the league is improving. The Big Ten was 8th nationally in RPI this season, up from 11th a year ago and 10th in 2020.
Rutgers finished 1.5 games behind Big Ten champ Maryland, which earned the No. 15 national seed. The teams were tied for first heading into the final weekend. The Scarlet Knights also reached the Big Ten Tournament title game before falling to Michigan.
And this is a well-rounded team.
Rutgers is 5th nationally in batting average, 8th in slugging percentage and 16th in fielding percentage. Literally no one in the country scored more runs. Not even Tennessee, which some already believe is among the greatest teams ever. The Scarlet Knights have 565 runs to Tennessee’s 561.
This was an elite team. Rutgers was the 2nd-best team in the nation’s 8th-best conference in the regular season and postseason. That should have been enough for an at-large berth.
But it was not, because of a clear geographical bias shown by this year’s selection committee.
Nonconference SOS: A no-good, anti-northern metric
It’s clear that 1 metric mattered above all others when rounding out this year’s field: nonconference strength of schedule.
Last 4 in
- Florida State (33-23, 15-15 ACC): 29 RPI, 28 NC SOS
- Grand Canyon (41-19, 25-5 WAC): 50 RPI, 10 NC SOS
- Liberty (37-21, 19-11 Atlantic Sun): 31 RPI, 13 NC SOS
- Ole Miss (32-22, 14-16 SEC): 39 RPI, 94 NC SOS
First 4 out
- NC State (36-21, 14-15 ACC): 32 RPI, 181 NC SOS
- Old Dominion (41-17, 19-11 C-USA): 40 RPI, 189 NC SOS
- Rutgers (44-15, 17-7 B1G): 42 RPI, 238 NC SOS
- Wofford (42-16-1, 16-4-1 SoCon): 35 RPI, 90 NC SOS
Reliance on that metric also makes it clear how Dallas Baptist — a team many expected to be on the wrong side of the bubble — made it into the field without breaking a sweat.
The Patriots were No. 1 nationally in nonconference strength of schedule. So despite going a totally unremarkable 11-9-1 to finish 3rd in the Missouri Valley, DBU made it in over all of the above. It bears mentioning that the MVC was the 9th-best conference in RPI, which puts it behind the Big Ten.
The bizarre message from Dallas Baptist’s inclusion? Even though the only automatic way into the NCAA Tournament is by winning your conference, in this case conference performance doesn’t really matter.
But the bigger issue here is how much emphasis is placed on nonconference strength of schedule, because the practice is inherently anti-northern.
With the bulk of nonconference games being played from February-April, weather is a constant factor facing any northern college baseball team. A Tuesday game might get canceled due to snow. To make up for it, a previously unscheduled game might pop up the next day.
RPI is of little concern to the coaches involved. They’re simply looking for an opponent within, say, a 3-hour driving radius that can play. And small-conference opponents in the Great Lakes region do not stack up to their southern and West Coast counterparts. Because if you can avoid playing center field in driving sleet, you do.
This isn’t just a Big Ten issue.
With a No. 13 RPI, Notre Dame should probably be a regional host. But because the Fighting Irish scheduled local teams like Valparaiso, Butler and Purdue-Fort Wayne, they are punished. Notre Dame’s nonconference RPI is 259, so the Irish are stuck going to Georgia Southern instead of hosting.
Few fans will be inclined to cry, cry for old Notre Dame. But there’s an inherent unfairness to what the baseball selection committee is emphasizing.
This isn’t like basketball, where teams are rightfully punished for ducking tough competition. In the north, baseball teams have to play whoever the heck they can get whenever the heck they can get them. And if you’re good enough to beat 75% of those opponents, as Rutgers did, you’re absolutely good enough to be in the postseason.
Baseball is the hardest sport in which to win consistently. Too many wacky, weird things can happen on a day-to-day basis. Yet there were only 9 teams in this country with a better winning percentage than Rutgers. To suggest the Scarlet Knights aren’t a worthy tournament team is preposterous.
Can it be fixed?
You hope no other deserving teams go through what Rutgers is experiencing. But if the committee continues to put such a lens on nonconference play, future disappointments are inevitable.
The only fix that comes to mind is loading up on road games early in the season, but that’s already a staple of northern baseball. Of Rutgers’ first 25 games, 22 were on the road.
Unless the committee places more emphasis on conference results, teams in the Big Ten and elsewhere in the north will only continue to see their competitive disadvantage exacerbated.