By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Judging from what happened against Michigan State this weekend, it almost seems as if the Iowa baseball players believe they won’t make the NCAA Tournament, so they took their anger and frustration out on the Spartans.
After erasing a four-run deficit to win Friday’s series opener 5-4 in East Lansing, Mich., Iowa won the next two games on Saturday and Sunday by scores of 12-1 and 11-3, respectively, to finish the regular season with a 26-18 record.
The concern for Iowa is that it won’t be enough to make the 64-team NCAA field, which will be announced on Monday.
Iowa head coach Rick Heller pleaded his case for the Hawkeyes deserving to make the tournament after Sunday’s victory.
“We’re playing great baseball and I believe we’re an NCAA Regional team,” Heller said. “I believe we’re deserving to be in the Regionals. Twenty-six wins in the Big Ten is a big deal, six wins against the top three teams, and nine straight Friday victories… not many people have done that.
“We’ve had success in Regionals every time we’ve been in. Our league has averaged 4.5 teams in the tournament the last five years and I don’t believe it should be any different this year.”
Heller brings up a lot of good points, but what’s different about this year is that Big Ten teams only played conference games.
Iowa was thought to be in contention for a spot in the field before it lost back-to-back three-game series to Illinois at home, and at Northwestern.
The NCAA selection committee considers how a team finishes the regular season, and for Iowa to have lost two of its final three series against teams with losing records sent the wrong message.
The Hawkeyes certainly have themselves to blame for not taking care of business with a postseason berth on the line.
But the Big Ten Conference also deserves some blame for playing only conference games, and for not having a postseason conference tournament.
To have only played conference games put Big Ten teams at a disadvantage because they didn’t have a chance to get signature wins against quality nonconference opponents.
One of Iowa’s biggest shortfalls is its RPI ranking, which was 83rd heading into Sunday’s game.
Baseball America’s latest field of 64 projection only had two Big Ten teams in the field – Nebraska and Maryland – while D1 Baseball had three Big Ten teams in the field: Nebraska, Michigan and Maryland.
D1 Baseball also didn’t have Iowa among its first five out of the field.
So the Hawkeyes were clearly facing an uphill climb heading into the Michigan State series to where earning a sweep probably still wouldn’t be enough to make the field of 64.
And while it will be a major disappointment should Iowa not make the NCAA Tournament, the 2021 season was far from a failure.
Junior southpaw Trenton Wallace was named the Big Ten Pitcher of Year, becoming the first Hawkeye to earn that honor, while senior centerfielder Ben Norman made first-team All-Big Ten and senior infielder Izaya Fullard was a third-team choice.
Iowa last played in the NCAA Tournament in 2017 as late-season struggles kept the Hawkeyes from making the field in 2018 and 2019.
This season has been the continuation of a recent trend in which Iowa faded down the stretch, and Heller is now being judged by the standard he has set at Iowa.
Iowa rarely was in contention for an NCAA Tournament berth in the two decades before Heller was hired in July, 2013.
The program is as strong as it has been for decades, but with that success comes a level of expectation.
Iowa hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2017, and for some to consider that a disappointing trend is proof of just how much the program has improved under Heller.
Some still are holding out hope that Iowa will make the NCAA Tournament, but it seems highly unlikely since Iowa finished tied for fourth place in the Big Ten standings with Indiana, while also having lost the series against Indiana.
The Big Ten will almost certainly get two, and possibly three teams in the field, but the chance of having five Big Ten teams in the field seems unrealistic.