As Nebraska baseball coach Darin Erstad said Sunday: Playoff mode is here.
The Huskers have three regular-season games remaining in a home series against Michigan beginning Thursday that the Big Ten Network will televise. Implications in the matchup with the league leader are heavy — NU could finish anywhere from first to seventh in the standings.
But just how “on the bubble” is Nebraska as it chases its fourth NCAA tournament berth in six years?
Nebraska (26-19, 13-8 Big Ten) has at least five more games to strengthen its case. Three with Michigan before the double-elimination Big Ten tourney beginning May 22 in Omaha. Regional pairings will be unveiled May 27.
The NCAA selection committee has said in recent seasons that RPI is a “starting point” in how it winnows the field to 64 teams. But there are a variety of other factors that play into the fate of 33 at-large qualifiers. Let’s look at some of the most important before reaching a verdict on what Nebraska may still need to accomplish.
Though men’s college basketball abandoned the metric last year, RPI remains the foundation for postseason baseball selections. The formula weighs a team’s winning percentage (25%), opponents’ winning percentage (50%) and opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage (25%). There is extra value for a road win and less value for a victory at home.
RPI “snubs” happen every year (we’ll get into why shortly). Kentucky missed at 30 last year. The first four teams out, according to the committee, were Northeastern (35), Dallas Baptist (36), Troy (39) and Oklahoma State (41). The first four missing in 2017 were South Carolina (32), Connecticut (38), Miami (41) and Old Dominion (50).
Recent Big Ten schools to fall short despite competitive selection-day RPIs were Illinois (47 last year), Michigan (38 in 2016) and Ohio State (41 in 2015). League schools to earn at-large bids include Ohio State (37 last year), Nebraska (44 in 2017 and 47 in 2016) and Minnesota (50 in 2016).
League record (Nebraska is 13-8 with three games left)
One metric the committee has prioritized in its at-large picks is success within the conference.
Kentucky’s gaudy RPI from a season ago was offset by a 13-17 mark in the SEC, and the NCAA field included only one team with a losing league record. Another team among the first four left out, Arizona, held an RPI of 26 but went 14-16 in the Pac-12.
South Carolina (32) just missed in 2017 after going 13-17 in its conference. Same for North Carolina (10) in 2016. Same for UNC (26), Georgia Tech (37) and Alabama (44), which were sub-.500 in league play in 2015.
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Nonconference strength of schedule (Nebraska is No. 3)
Isolating the “nonconference” portion of strength of schedule is a more recent metric used to measure the quality of a school’s record. Of course, teams have to win enough of those games for it to matter.
A school’s record against top-100 RPI teams is a good reference point. Ohio State qualified last year while 55th in nonconference SOS and was 14-13 against those top 100 teams. Illinois (72nd, 11-11) missed out.
Other Big Ten teams were good examples in 2017. Qualifiers included Maryland (76th, 10-11), Nebraska (92nd, 13-12) and Michigan (167th, 12-9).
The first four out in 2017 had these numbers: South Carolina (22nd, 22-23), Miami (17th, 20-23), Old Dominion (159th, 18-13), Connecticut (131st, 17-18).
Nebraska is third in nonconference SOS and 11-18 against top-100 RPI clubs ahead of the series with Michigan (41 RPI).
League tournament winners are assured spots in the NCAA field. That affects at-large candidates.
That played out to an extreme in 2017 when Rice (39 RPI), Oklahoma State (40), Sam Houston State (54), Dallas Baptist (65), Xavier (75) and Iowa (83) all won in conferences that had at least one other strong at-large candidate. As a result, Miami (41) saw its 44-year regional streak snapped and South Carolina — a two-time national champ this decade — had no space for benefit of the doubt.
Nebraska’s postseason fate is probably yet to be decided. Its biggest assets are the third-ranked nonconference strength of schedule and respectable league record. Series wins over Baylor and Arizona State are valuable, as is the Texas Tech victory.
The record against top-100 RPI teams hurts, especially 4-8 against squads in the 51-100 range (see: series losses to Minnesota, Iowa and Northwestern). And the Huskers aren’t exactly hot, having lost nine of their past 15 games.
What will it take for Nebraska to play into June? Winning the weekend against Michigan would almost certainly give NU the résumé boost it needs. Claim one game, and suddenly the Big Ten tourney takes on added importance. Getting swept might mean tourney title or bust.
Playoff baseball is already here.
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1979: Nebraska made its first NCAA tournament after racking up a then-program record for wins during the regular season. The Huskers were sent to the Northeast Regional, hosted by the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. NU dropped its first game 5-0 to St. John's but rebounded with a nine-run victory over Navy later that day. The Huskers' season ended with a 15-0 rout by Connecticut.
1980: Nebraska returned to the NCAA tournament after winning more than 45 games during the regular season for the second straight year. The Huskers went to the Midwest Regional in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and defeated BYU 12-0 in their first game. NU beat the Cougars again the next day — after losing to Michigan the night prior — but its season ended after a 12-3 loss to the Wolverines.
Note: The above picture was taken during the Big Eight tournament.
1985: Nebraska was sent to Northern California for the Western 1 Regional in Palo Alto. The Huskers kicked off the NCAA tournament with a 4-2 victory over Pepperdine, but they lost two straight by one run after that — 9-8 to Stanford and 7-6 to Pepperdine — to see their season end.
1999: Nebraska ended a 14-year NCAA tournament drought after winning the Big 12 tournament. The Huskers went to Columbus, Ohio, where they ran into a pesky Mississippi State team. The Bulldogs defeated NU twice — sandwiched around a Nebraska victory over Bowling Green — to eliminate the Huskers from postseason play.
2000: After winning a second straight Big 12 tournament title, the Huskers also advanced to the super regional round for the first time in program history. The Huskers defeated Butler, Minnesota and Wichita State to win the Minneapolis Regional and set up a date with Stanford in Palo Alto. The Huskers won the first game but lost the next two to the eventual national runners-up.
2001: Nebraska swept the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles and was rewarded with a chance to host an NCAA tournament game for the first time. NU went undefeated through the regional and super regional rounds to make its first College World Series. But the Huskers suffered one-run losses to Cal State Fullerton and Tulane to go two-and-out in Omaha.
2002: The road to Omaha again went through Lincoln for the Huskers, as they swept the Lincoln Regional then defeated Richmond in three games to reach the College World Series. That would also end in heartbreak for NU, though, as the Huskers lost to Clemson in walk-off fashion in their first game, then lost to South Carolina by two to leave Rosenblatt without a victory.
2003: The Huskers made their fifth consecutive NCAA tournament but didn't make it past the regional. NU opened the Lincoln Regional with a win over Eastern Michigan but ended up in the loser's bracket after falling to Southwest Missouri State. The Huskers eliminated EMU the next day then beat SMSU to force a winner-take-all game, but the Bears won that and ended NU's season.
2005: One of the best teams in program history went undefeated in the NCAA tournament on its way to the College World Series. The Huskers also picked up their first CWS victory that year by defeating Arizona State, 5-3, in the opener. But NU would drop its next two games, including a rematch with the Sun Devils that NU lost in 11 innings.
2006: Nebraska followed up its 2006 College World Series appearance with a disappointing run in the NCAA tournament. The Huskers hosted a regional but went two-and-out with losses to Manhattan and San Francisco, scoring only one run in each game.
2007: After a regular season in which Nebraska finished just above .500, the Huskers were the No. 3 seed in the Tempe Regional. The Huskers went into the loser's bracket after dropping their opening game to UC Riverside. NU did rebound with two consecutive wins, including one in a rematch with UC Riverside, but its season ended with a 19-7 loss to host Arizona State.
2008: Nebraska got to host a regional for the third time in four years, but that's where the Huskers' season ended. NU opened the NCAA tournament with a 13-10 victory over Eastern Illinois but lost its next two — 3-2 to UC Irvine and 8-0 to Oral Roberts.
2014: Back in the NCAA tournament for the first time in six years, the Huskers were sent to the Stillwater Regional as a No. 2 seed. Nebraska fell into the loser's bracket with a loss to Cal State Fullerton but defeated Binghamton the next day to avoid elimination. NU would again run into Fullerton and was eliminated with a one-run loss.
2016: It was a disappointing postseason in Darin Erstad's second NCAA tournament appearance as the Husker head coach. After going two-and-out in the Big Ten tournament, NU was sent to the Clemson Regional as the No. 3 seed. The Huskers were shut out in the first game — a 6-0 loss to Oklahoma State — and then lost to No. 4 seed Western Carolina the next day to be eliminated.
2017: Nebraska's Luis Alvarado drove in the only run in its 5-1 loss to Yale at the Corvallis Regional on June 2, 2017. The Huskers, who won the Big Ten regular-season title, would go on to fall to Holy Cross in the loser's bracket, 7-4.
2019: Nebraska was one out away from starting 2-0 in the Oklahoma City regional, but a three-run homer by Oklahoma State send the Huskers into the losers bracket. They didn't recover and were eliminated in a 15-run loss to UConn. Darin Erstad resigned the next day.