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McDermott: How the Big Ten ended its baseball season before it even began

Collegiate baseball surely isn’t known for its in-conference weekend series in the Midwest. It’s known for Omaha — a week of the highest level of college baseball, the best eight teams in the country.

Indiana baseball has seen itself in the College World Series only once, 2013. Aside from 2019 national runner-up Michigan, recently, the Big Ten hasn’t found much success getting to the big stage. Since 2005, only those Indiana and Michigan teams from the conference have made the final eight in Omaha. So yes, the Big Ten is desperate for good baseball.

Indiana heartbroken after loss to Oregon State in 2013 College World Series. (Photo: USA Today Sports)

The margin for error is thin, but this season the conference made it even thinner by not allowing its teams to boost their resumes with non-conference games. Meanwhile, other conferences allowed their teams to schedule tough non-conference opponents to build stronger postseason resumes.

By 12:45 p.m. on May 31 Indiana’s baseball season was over. As the selection committee released the field of 64, only three Big Ten squads qualified: Nebraska, Michigan and Maryland. After a series loss over the holiday weekend to the Terrapins, the Hoosiers finished the season with a 26-18 record, finishing fourth in the conference just on the outside looking in on the NCAA tournament.

Yes, Indiana didn’t play as well as it should have in order to make the field but the Hoosiers' own conference didn’t help them out, at all. A conference-only schedule alongside no conference tournament left a lot of question marks on the season for all teams of what could have been. It made an already thin margin of error even thinner as teams had to play nearly perfectly every weekend. 

In a normal season the Big Ten baseball teams tend to spend February and early March in warmer weather facing non-conference opponents in efforts of gaining a better RPI. 

Indiana against No. 11 LSU in Baton Rouge, 2020. (Photo: Hilary Sheinuk)

For example, before the cancellation of the 2020 season Indiana had an extremely tough non-conference schedule. The team started the season off in Baton Rouge against No. 11 LSU. IU also had games scheduled against No. 17 East Carolina, No. 13 Ole Miss, Kentucky, No. 2 Louisville, Memphis, Cincinnati, Notre Dame, and many more. Just playing these teams and grabbing a few wins is just huge for a Big Ten team. 

But this season, for the Big Ten, your RPI is meaningless and unchangeable. How can the selection committee use that number if no outside teams play your conference? No one truly knew how good the Big Ten was this season, not even the selection committee, but you can’t blame them for that. 

Nebraska, the Big Ten champions, finished this past year's season with the 42nd best RPI in the country and a 31-12 record. That was the best in the Big Ten by, well, a lot. Maryland had an RPI ranking of 61. This low RPI had a direct correlation with the scheduling. The RPI also affected Nebraska’s seeding in the tournament. They drew the No. 2 seed in the Fayetteville regional, home of the No. 1 overall seed Arkansas Razorbacks. This means the committee considered Nebraska as the No. 32 team in the field. I think we all know the Cornhuskers are better than that, by a long way.

For context, UConn, which finished its season with a worse record than Nebraska, 33-17, was granted a No. 2 seed in the South Bend regional — which is considerably easier than Nebraska's as Notre Dame is the No. 10 overall seed. However, UConn had a non-conference schedule which propelled the team to success and a better RPI.

UConn faced No. 5 Virginia, No. 9 Texas Tech, Coastal Carolina and Southern Mississippi. UConn finished the season with the 25th best RPI in the nation. It's safe to say that the RPI and non-conference have a direct correlation and gave the Huskies a better seed than Nebraska. Not to mention, the Huskies came out of a weak conference in the Big East as they handily won their conference and were the only Big East team to qualify.

The scheduling decision that was made back in November to play a conference-only schedule with no conference tournament made the most important aspect of a Big Ten team’s postseason résumé completely null and void. The decision was never changed or reconsidered as vaccinations began rolling out and COVID-19 restrictions began to ease across the country in late winter and early spring.

This is, of course, not to minimize the significance of the horrific pandemic which has affected each of us in unimaginable ways, but safe ways of travel and playing sports had been approved by the CDC and over the course of the season it was deemed more than possible as teams all over the country figured it out and were able to play non-conference teams to boost their résumé. 

For years the Big Ten has been the weak link of college baseball. Some years, like 2021, the conference only got three teams in the field of 64 NCAA Tournament and if they were lucky maybe four or five. Honestly, for a Power Five conference that made around $780 million in revenue in 2019, that's embarrassing. I think it’s safe to say that college baseball isn’t one of the most revenue earning sports for the Big Ten but just look out how successful it is in basically all the other conferences and especially this season. These are missed opportunities on revenue with both scheduling and a conference tournament.

The Big Ten made around $780 million in revenue in 2019 but only had three Big Ten baseball teams make the NCAA Tournament. (Photo: Johns Hopkins University)

A big swing and miss if you ask me from the Big Ten administration. 

This really raises the question to me — does the Big Ten really want its baseball teams to succeed? 

When the Big Ten decided in November to play a conference-only schedule it looked like the other conferences may follow and join them but it turned out to never be the case. They were the odd one out, again. Remember, the Big Ten also jumped the gun on the 2020 football season as they were met with criticism for cancelling the fall season. So this isn’t new territory for the conference. Although, Big Ten football is a completely different animal than baseball as they met critics halfway starting the season in late October with a nine-game schedule — multiple of which were cancelled due to COVID-19.

Personally I, and I think many will agree, believe that a conference's duty is to have its teams', players' and coaches' best interests in mind — to want them to succeed, compete and win in an organized, safe and fair way. 

Was the Big Ten holding its teams' best interest in heart and mind when making the decisions about the 2021 baseball season? Did the conference-only schedule and lack of a conference tournament really benefit the teams more than it hurt them?

Well, those are opinionated questions, but I really want you to ask yourself them. My personal thoughts are clear.

There’s no one to blame or necessarily hold accountable, but a lingering sense of being inflexible stains one of the most accomplished conferences in collegiate athletics. 

Granted, the fate of the Hoosiers’ season was in their own hands in the last few weeks of the season. It was too long of a slump to end the season for Indiana as the Hoosiers lost nine of 13 games to close the spring. There’s no question that a non-conference schedule could have helped Indiana’s postseason argument, but at the end of the day the team didn’t win enough games to make the field of 64.

There’s no way to tell whether Indiana could have made the tournament if it swept or won the series against the Terps this past weekend but the season had begun to drift away long before that. Starting with the series at Michigan on May 14, something just felt a little off. Better play will be needed in the future to make the tournament. It’s simple as that.

Sometimes nothing can be everything. In sports this is especially true.

The Hoosiers will return a lot of key pieces in 2021 with a fire underneath them. Three key freshmen will return: John Modugno, Paul Toetz and Morgan Colopy; all three were named to the Big Ten freshman team. Obviously, the MLB draft will be interesting and the potential of the 2022 season will be clearer in the fall. 

OK, look. The future of the Big Ten baseball landscape is promising. Teams such as Michigan, Nebraska, Indiana and Maryland will continue to compete at the top where teams like Iowa and Ohio State have promising futures. But the Big Ten has to help them and propel their teams into success rather than drag them behind. No one likes to feel left for dead.

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