By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Big Ten Conference has a problem with how its baseball and softball teams are perceived nationally, and it comes down to a lack of respect.
How else do you explain only three Big Ten teams making the NCAA Tournament field in both sports?
The 64-team field for the 2021 NCAA Baseball Championships was announced Monday on ESPN2, and Nebraska, Maryland and Michigan were the only Big Ten teams to make the field, with Michigan among the last four to make the cut.
Iowa and Indiana tied for fourth in the conference standings with 26-18 records, but both were left out of the field, and neither was listed among the first four teams left out of the bracket.
The first four teams left out of the field were Baylor, Pittsburgh, Georgia and Ball State.
So Iowa and Indiana weren’t even on the tournament bubble it appears despite tying for fourth place in the conference, while Michigan barely made it in the tournament despite finishing third in the conference standings, and despite finishing as the NCAA runner-up in 2019.
Alabama, on the other hand, made the field despite finishing just 12-17 in Southeastern Conference play, and despite losing 12 of its final 15 games, while North Carolina made the cut despite barely being above .500 at 27-25 overall.
The Iowa softball team also didn’t make the NCAA Tournament despite finishing in fourth place in the Big Ten. The conference only got three bids in softball that went to Michigan, Minnesota and Northwestern.
Stetson Athletic Director Jeff Altier, who is Chairman of the NCAA selection committee for baseball, was asked on ESPN2 to explain the committee’s reasons for picking Alabama.
After struggling to answer the question, Altier only came up with one reason.
“As it came into the end of the year, that was something that was important for the committee to consider, making sure that we put into the tournament the teams that we feel are playing well,” Altier said. “With Alabama, their strength of schedule was very strong and I think that was pretty much it.”
The fact that Alabama made the tournament despite going 3-12 down the stretch speaks volumes about how both the Southeastern Conference and the Big Ten Conference are perceived from a baseball standpoint.
The Big Ten, obviously, has an image problem, and didn’t help its cause by playing only conference games this season, and by cancelling its postseason conference tournament.
Iowa finished the regular-season with the third highest RPI in the Big Ten at No. 82, trailing only Nebraska (46) and Maryland (55).
However, that’s far below Alabama’s RPI of 31, which is due mostly to its strength of schedule in the SEC.
The selection committee probably would’ve rewarded SEC teams for playing only conference games, while the Big Ten gets punished for it.
That’s a perception problem that might stem from having a regional bias against the Big Ten.
The SEC led the way with nine teams making the NCAA Tournament, followed by the Atlantic Coast Conference with eight teams, the Pac-12 with six and the Big 12 and Conference USA both with four teams apiece.
Big Ten regular-season champion Nebraska was denied a chance to host a regional, and that is another slap in the face to the Big Ten.
Iowa coach Rick Heller was the guest for nearly an hour on the Hawk Fanatic radio show and podcast Monday morning, and he explained in great detail why he felt Iowa deserved be in the NCAA Tournament. But Heller also acknowledged that it probably was a long shot.
Iowa deserves part of the blame for losing two of its final three series to Illinois and Northwestern.
But the Hawkeyes also won nine consecutive series openers and eight series overall, and split a pod weekend against Ohio State and Nebraska.
Iowa collected five wins against the top two teams in the regular-season standings, winning twice against Nebraska and three times against Maryland.
Iowa’s ace pitcher, Trenton Wallace, was also named the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year and led the conference with seven wins, 106 strikeouts and 2.34 earned-run average.
Iowa also finished eight games above .500 despite having been 4-8 at one point this season, and despite having been impacted by positive Covid-19 tests early in the season.
“We overcame a lot of adversity this season,” Heller said. “I’m proud of the way our players fought through the tough times to have a good season. We accomplished some great things this season, as a team, and individually.”
Heller is right in saying that there is a lot to like about his team, and yet, the NCAA selection committee didn’t seem overly impressed.
Iowa last played in the NCAA Tournament in 2017 as late-season struggles proved costly in 2018 and 2019, and in this season.
Some of Iowa’s problems this season were beyond its control, including the Big Ten’s decision to play only conference games.
“We had no say in that decision, and we knew it could eventually hurt us,” Heller said of playing only conference games.
To play only conference games put the Big Ten teams at a bigger disadvantage than usual, and Iowa ultimately paid the price for the league’s lack of respect.
And speaking of being at a disadvantage, Heller also talked in detail about the uneven playing field that exists in college baseball, as well as in other non-revenue sports.
While schools like Michigan can use supplemental resources to help finance baseball scholarships through financial aid, Heller doesn’t have that luxury at Iowa because the university prohibits it.
That’s a big deal because it puts Iowa at a serious disadvantage from a competitive standpoint. It’s hard enough to compete in the Big Ten, but doing it with less help financially just doesn’t seem fair.
College baseball teams are allowed 11.7 scholarships under NCAA rules that can be divided between a maximum of 27 players.
However, some schools can offer more financial aid through supplemental resources, but that doesn’t include Iowa, much to Heller’s frustration.
“It makes it hard when other teams have an advantage like that,” Heller said.
Heller knew that was the case when he took the Iowa job in 2013. But it’s still frustrating that some Big Ten teams have ways financially to work around the scholarship limitations, while others don’t.
Just like it was frustrating for Heller that only three Big Ten teams made the NCAA Tournament.
Whether intentional or not, the NCAA selection committee sent the Big Ten a message on Monday, and it came at Iowa’s expense.