Big Ten Baseball is on the rise. Once banished as a one-bid mid-major league, the conference is improving facilities and taking advantage of the uniform start date to improve its profile. For a second straight season the league was a multi-bid league in the NCAA Tournament and at least five schools were legitimately considered for the field.
Unfortunately, the quest to return to Omaha is still ongoing. The other Big six conferences regularly send representatives as even Louisville out of the Big East has been recently. The Big Ten hasn't sent a team to Omaha since Michigan in 1984. Indiana, Illinois, Purdue, and Northwestern have never been. A few others have come close of late. Michigan won a regional at No. 1 National Seed Vanderbilt in 2007, but that is close as the league has come since Ohio State hosted a Super Regional in 2003.
While Purdue was seemingly the team of destiny last year, everything was unraveled in less than 24 hours with losses to Kent State and Kentucky in the Gary Regional. This year Indiana is taking Purdue's place as the Big Ten top representative, while Illinois earned a deserved at large berth. Four other schools came up just short of making the tournament.
Indiana Hoosiers - Last year Purdue was 44-12 heading into the tourney, spent most of the season between 10-18 in the national rankings, and was named a host despite not having Alexander Field done. The Boilers were given a tricky regional in getting Kentucky, who should have been a host over Miami, and a scorching hot Kent State team in the nation's longest win streak.
IU (43-14) this year is basically a mirror-image of Purdue last year, right down to breaking a long Big Ten title drought. The only difference is their new field is done and they will host Valparaiso (31-26), Florida (29-28), and Austin Peay (45-13). They have an excellent shot of advancing, as well. Valpo was in last year's field, losing to Purdue and Kentucky up in Gary, but got hot against to get the Horizon league auto-bid.
Austin Peay was a dangerous four-seed that pushed national seed Oregon before falling late. They then beat Indiana State and Cal State Fullerton before falling to the Ducks in the final in Eugene. This year they are a No. 2 seed on a 15-game win streak and have won 19 of 20 overall. They already beat a Big Ten team twice in Michigan State and twice in Iowa.
Florida doesn't belong here. The Gators are only in the tournament on name and conference affiliation alone, as they were barely over .500 on the season. Indiana took two of three from them during the season's fourth weekend in Gainesville, so this could be a rematch if they meet IU. They have the second worst record in the field other than Bowling Green, who won the MAC auto-bid with a losing record.
Indiana's only real competition here should be Austin Peay. Florida can push them, and Valpo could surprise as they do have a win over an NCAA team in Arizona State.
Illinois Fighting Illini - Other Big Ten teams had flashier seasons, but Illinois was extremely consistent in going 34-18 to earn an at large berth. A three-game sweep at Baylor gave them a huge boost RPI-wise since the new formula rewards teams for true road wins. Illinois had 11 such wins, including over top 50 teams in IU, Michigan State, and Baylor.
Illinois was given the No. 3 seed in the Nashville Regional, where No. 2 National seed Vanderbilt is the host. They get Georgia Tech (34-15) who rode the inflated ACC to an at large berth. Tech split a late season midweek two-game series at Ohio State, so the Illini have a great chance to earn a win. Two seasons ago Illinois was the Big Ten's lone representative when it won the Big Ten Tournament and was sent out to Cal State Fullerton. The Illini lost their opening game to the hosts 10-4, but beat Kansas State and eliminated Fullerton before losing to Stanford. Part of that roster is back with experience.
Still, Vanderbilt at 51-9 is the overwhelming favorite. They open with East Tennessee State (36-22), but Vandy was and impressive 26-3 against the always loaded SEC before losing to Texas A&M and LSU in the SEC tourney. As if that wasn't tough enough they took two out of three at Oregon earlier in the year and the Ducks are the No. 8 national seed.
Michigan State Spartans - Sparty had the most cruel Sparty No! of all. If not for an entire three-game series at Minnesota getting snowed out Michigan State would likely have returned to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season. MSU was 33-17 overall and had a strong RPI of 42, but the loss of three games from the Big Ten slate meant a seventh place finish in the standings. That also meant they missed the Big Ten Tournament.
Of course, MSU can blame itself a bit. They dropped a series at Iowa and lost a game to last place Penn State in their final two weekends. Turn even one of those three losses to a win and MSU is in the Big Ten and NCAA Tourney. I know because of this:
Gah. RT @chrissolari: NCAA baseball selection chairman Dennis Farrell tells reporters that MSU was the last team left out of the tournament.— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) May 27, 2013
Nebraska Cornhuskers - Nebraska played a brutal schedule and it paid off. They finished with a strong RPI of 28, second only to IU's 12 in the Big Ten. So why are they not in the field? Their 29-30 overall record is why.
If you have a losing record overall you can't get in unless you win your conference tournament. Nebraska came close, fighting out of the loser's bracket to force a winner-take-all game against Indiana on Sunday, but they lost 4-3. Win that and there was no worry about an at large bid, as they would have had an auto-bid.
Nebraska had 10 losses by a single run. If they turn one of those into a win they are very likely still playing baseball, as their RPI was better than Florida, who got an at large bid despite being only a game over .500.
Ohio St. Buckeyes - OSU had the record at 35-23, but they are staying home because they could not finish against a slate that was strong enough not just to get in, but to host. On May 6 OSU was 32- 14 with a very unique finishing kick. They had home games against Georgia Tech, Oregon, Louisville, and Indiana. All four were NCAA teams and three good enough that they got hosting spots. Once in the Big Ten Tournament, OSU got to play Nebraska twice and Indiana once. In their final 12 games they played no one with an RPI worse than 28 (Nebraska). Unfortunately, they went 3-9, lost the Big Ten itself on a Grand Slam in extra innings to Indiana, and scored only one run in getting swept by Oregon 3-1, 4-0, and 1-0.
Ohio State could have given the conference two hosting spots for the first time ever if it finished strong. Instead, it didn't even make the tournament.
Minnesota Golden Gophers - I am throwing one last team in here because Minnesota hung around all year. They had a good record at 30-22, but their RPI was awful at 114. They lost three chances to raise that when the Michigan State series was cancelled, but this was a good team. It won games at regional hosts UCLA and Kansas State, but played no one else. They also did not play Indiana in conference play, missing another chance to raise the RPI. Their 13-8 league record was built on going 9-3 against Michigan, Iowa, Northwestern, and Penn State, who all had awful RPIs.
Minnesota beat Illinois to start the Big Ten Tourney before losing to Indiana. They then beat the Illini again (making them 3-2 against Illinois at the close of the year) before losing to Nebraska.