With 5 teams in NCAAs, cold-weather Big Ten baseball hot now
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — As usual, the SEC, ACC and Pac-12 had the most teams make the NCAA baseball tournament. Right behind those warm-weather conferences, though, was the Big Ten, a league that not long ago was an afterthought on selection day.
The Big Ten advanced a record five teams into the field of 64 and has a national seed for the second year in a row, this time No. 6 Illinois.
“I’ve been in this conference for 25 years, and 10 years as a head coach, and this is the best it’s been by a long shot,” Illini coach Dan Hartleb said Monday night. “For us to have this type of year with the quality in this league, it’s very satisfying, but it’s not the ultimate goal.”
Pac-12 champion UCLA (42-14) edged out Southeastern Conference regular-season champion LSU (48-10) for the No. 1 national seed. The other six national seeds, in order, are: Louisville, Florida, Miami, Illinois, TCU and Missouri State.
The tournament opens Friday with 16 four-team, double-elimination regionals. Best-of-three super regionals are next week, with those winners moving to the College World Series in Omaha.
National seeds that win their regionals play at home in super regionals. Since the NCAA went to its current tournament format in 1999, only one No. 1 national seed — Miami in 1999 — has won the championship.
The SEC and Atlantic Coast Conference each have seven teams in the tournament and the Pac-12 has six.
Until this year, the Big Ten had never had more than three qualifiers. The big breakthrough came in 2013, when Indiana became the first Big Ten team since Michigan in 1984 to reach the CWS. Last year Indiana was the first Big Ten team to earn a national seed, at No. 4, but the Hoosiers were upset in regionals.
Illinois (47-8-1) is in the tournament for the 11th time but will host its first regional. The Illini had the nation’s longest win streak this season at 27 games that ended in the Big Ten tournament.
Iowa (39-16) made the tournament for the first time since 1990 and will be the No. 2 regional seed at the Missouri State site. Michigan (37-23) won the Big Ten tournament to receive an automatic bid and will be the No. 3 regional seed at Louisville.
Indiana (34-22) won 11 of its last 14 games under first-year coach Chris Lemonis to get a No. 3 regional seed at Vanderbilt. Maryland (39-21) is the No. 3 regional seed at UCLA.
“That conference has done a really good job with promoting facilities, promoting players and TV exposure,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “They’re a legitimate baseball conference right now. It seems like the depth of the conference is vastly improved.”
UCLA’s dominance in the Pac-12 this spring impressed the Division I Baseball Committee so much that the Bruins earned the No. 1 national seed for the first time. A year ago, they followed up their 2013 national championship with a 25-30-1 record that kept them out of the tournament.
“We knew we were going to have a good team,” Savage said. “We knew we had some players back, and we knew we were healthy. But to go from the top of the mountain in ’13 to the bottom in ‘14 and then back in ’15, at least to this point, feels pretty good. The Pac-12 coaches predicted us to win the league. I think that’s kind of a telling sign. You still have to go out and do it and have things go your way.”
The Bruins have bounced back on the strength of a pitching staff that leads the nation with a 2.16 ERA and a much-improved offense that’s batting .285 and averaging better than six runs a game.
This is the third time since 2010 that UCLA has earned a national seed. UCLA starts the tournament in Los Angeles against Cal State Bakersfield.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri’s team has been the consensus No. 1 in the major polls for a month. He said he had no problem with the selection committee’s decision on national seedings. The Tigers have one of the country’s most powerful offenses, batting .320 and scoring 7.2 runs a game. They lost to Florida in the semifinals of the SEC tournament.
“A lot was made of, ‘Are we going to be the No. 1 overall seed?’ I wasn’t the least bit concerned about it,” Mainieri said. “UCLA is very deserving of that honor. We would have been deserving as well. It really doesn’t matter.”
Defending national champion Vanderbilt was among a group of teams considered for one of the last two national seeds. The Commodores, runners-up to Florida in the SEC tournament, start the NCAA tournament at home against Lipscomb.
Teams making their first appearances are conference tournament champions Radford (Big South) Florida A&M (MEAC), Houston Baptist (Southland) and Cal State Bakersfield (WAC).
Miami is in the tournament for a record 43rd consecutive year. Florida State qualified for a 38th year in a row.