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That was the original plan. But when Michigan knocked off Rutgers late Sunday afternoon to win the Big Ten Conference tournament, there didn’t seem a need.
The writing was on the wall. The Hawkeyes knew they weren’t going to be included in college baseball’s version of the Big Dance.
“We were going to meet, then when Rutgers got beat, we decided not to,” Coach Rick Heller said. “We didn’t feel like what we were reading was very positive. So we just met at 1 o’clock after all of us had a chance to take it all in ... get a little down time.”
It was a bitter and abrupt end to a good season for the Hawkeyes. They tied for second place in the Big Ten’s regular season, finished with a 36-19 overall record.
But they lost their first Big Ten tournament game to Penn State, which sent them immediately to the losers’ bracket. They remained alive there for a while, winning three times before Michigan 10-runned them to reach the one-off title game.
The Wolverines beat Rutgers for the tourney title and the automatic regional bid that went with it. Regular-season champ Maryland received an at-large bid.
That was it. No other Big Ten team got in.
“Obviously we were all extremely disappointed,” Heller said. “Whenever you feel like you earned something and did everything that you could do to put yourself into a position to be chosen, when you’re not, it’s a kick in the gut, that’s for sure. It really hurt. I really feel awful for our players, who I felt did what they needed to do to have a chance to get in and compete for a championship.”
That the Big Ten was a two-bid league this season disturbs Heller and assuredly every other coach in the conference. Rutgers was snubbed despite a 44-15 overall record, a runner-up league finish in the regular season and a 42 RPI.
The Scarlet Knights kind of fell victim to the Big Ten’s decision not to make its tournament a true double-elimination event. Rutgers’ only tourney loss in an otherwise double-elimination affair came in the “championship” game.
Iowa finished with a 57 RPI, by the way.
“That the system needs to change,” Heller said, when asked what he thought when he saw Rutgers excluded from the NCAA tournament. “Pre-COVID, what were we getting? Four or five, even more. The funny thing is we had a representative on that (selection) committee. But last year, after COVID, it seemed like we were punished for playing a Big Ten-only schedule, which to this day makes no sense to me. Then to see it this year, where we bounce back after COVID ...”
The Big Ten had three NCAA qualifiers last season: Nebraska, Maryland and Michigan. As Heller mentioned, because of the pandemic, the league decided to play a conference-only schedule with no conference tournament.
The 2020 season was canceled, of course, with the Big Ten accruing five NCAA bids in 2019: Michigan, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio State.
Any way you slice it, that’s going backward.
“The fact that 13 coaches are upset isn’t going to matter in the big picture, but there needs to be some major changes,” Heller said. “The only way that’s going to be done is for the Big Ten administration and the commissioner to jump in and see if we can fix this.”
Heller said in the long run, the most fair thing for the NCAA to do for northern and eastern schools would be to push the entire season back a month. That would allow those schools to practice and play games outside the entire way.
“If they changed the RPI, it could definitely help if they did some tweaks with the regional stuff that we have no control over,” he said. “But it doesn’t change the fact that we have to go south or west and service those teams that can prey on teams that haven’t been outside and get their RPIs up.
“By the time we get back home, our fate is set. There’s nothing we can do, you know what I mean? It’s just going to continue to hurt you, and 99 percent of the time, it is going to hurt us because we’re not going to win 70 percent of our games league-wide those first four weeks. It’s virtually impossible.”
Heller was asked if he thinks a calendar change in the season is a realistic possibility.
“It hasn’t happened, yet, so I’d say the chances aren’t great,” he said. “But also there has been some momentum underground, during COVID, some proposals that the Big Ten put out. I’m just hoping our administrators and the commissioner and the Big Ten office gets involved. Because nothing is going to change if it’s just coaches. It has to be at a higher level. That’s where we’re at now.
“This is a punch in the face and hopefully an eye opener for everybody in our league that this can’t happen. It’s wrong.”
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