A banner year for Big Ten baseball got even better Monday as a record five conference teams landed spots in the 64-team NCAA tournament.
The Division I baseball committee made Illinois the No. 6 national seed for the tournament that begins Friday with regional play and ends with the College World Series June 13 to 24 in Omaha.
Michigan earned the conference’s automatic berth by winning the Big Ten tournament. Iowa, Maryland and Indiana also made the field as at-large selections.
“It was an excellent year for the Big Ten,” said Dave Heeke, athletic director at Central Michigan and chairman of the baseball committee. “The Big Ten had a number of quality teams.
“There were lots of conversations about the teams that both went into the tournament and those that might have just missed.”
Michigan State fell into the latter category. Despite having a better RPI (48) than several teams, including Oregon, that received at-large berths, the 34-23 Spartans ended up being one of the first four teams left out of the tournament after much deliberation.
“We looked team by team,” Heeke said. “We line those up against each other and begin to make determinations that way. Ultimately, the strong finish and those strong wins with Oregon began to tilt it in its direction.
“All 10 members kind of put it together, and Oregon was ultimately the team selected for that spot.”
Illinois knew before Monday’s selection program that it was in the tournament having been picked as one of 16 regional hosts on Sunday. Landing one of the eight national seeds just sweetened the deal for the 47-8-1 Illini.
“Our guys played extremely well all year,” Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said. “We’re proud that we’re a national seed. That’s a very difficult thing to do, but it just means people recognize the quality of this team.”
Hartleb said he knows little about Ohio, his team’s first-round regional opponent, or the other two teams — Notre Dame and Wright State — that the committee assigned to Champaign.
“From past experiences, we know any time you get into NCAA play it’s going to be a grind,” he said. “These are very good teams in here, teams that are hot, teams that are playing well as of late.”
Ohio fits that bill. The Bobcats, coached by former Creighton assistant Rob Smith, won the Mid-American tournament by allowing just 13 hits and five earned runs in four wins.
“For most of the year, our pitching was near the middle of the pack, but it’s really come along the last month,” Smith said. “We only used four pitchers in the tournament. It was amazing.
“I’ve never seen anything
Junior Connor Sitz threw the first no-hitter in Mid-American tournament history to put Ohio into the championship game. The Bobcats locked up their first NCAA tournament berth since 1997 by defeating Ball State 6-2 in the title game.
Smith’s team brings a 36-19 record into regional play after going 14-39 and 11-40 in his first two seasons.
“When I was at Creighton, I got pretty accustomed to winning ballgames, competing for the conference championships and going to regionals,’’ Smith said. “All of a sudden, you’re right in the middle of winning 11 games.
“That’s tough. There were some frustrating moments that were tough to deal with, but you just have to keep grinding and keep working and believing that something good was going to happen. Fortunately, it did.”
Two other former Creighton assistants also are in the tournament. Spencer Allen is in his first season on Hartleb’s staff at Illinois after spending two stints as an assistant coach with the Bluejays.
Dan Heefner, a member of Ed Servais’ first Creighton staff, is in his ninth season as Dallas Baptist’s head coach. The Patriots are one of the 16 regional hosts after posting a 43-13 record.
Play begins in the four-team, double-elimination regionals on Friday. The winners advance to best-of-three super regionals, with the eight winners earning spots in the CWS field.
The committee made UCLA the No. 1 overall seed, with Louisiana State No. 2. The other national seeds are No. 3 Louisville, No. 4 Florida, No. 5 Miami, No. 6 Illinois, No. 7 Texas Christian and No. 8 Missouri State.
UCLA won the 2013 national championship but finished an injury-plagued 2014 season five games under .500. The Bruins rebounded this season to win the Pac-12 title while compiling a 42-14 record.
The Bruins, who were a No. 2 national seed in 2012 and a No. 6 in 2010, will open against Cal State Bakersfield. Mississippi and Maryland also were placed in the Los Angeles regional.
“We are very proud of our body of work and the success we’ve had,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “However, we realize this is a new season. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
LSU, the SEC regular-season champion, brings a 48-10 record into its first tournament game against Lehigh in the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, regional.
“LSU is an outstanding club,” Heeke said. “There’s such a fine line between the two. UCLA did not lose a series until the last weekend. Ultimately, it was very close, but they were deemed to be our No. 1 overall seed.”
The SEC and the Atlantic Coast each placed six teams in the tournament, while the Pac-12 advanced six teams and the Big Ten five. In addition to Missouri State and Dallas Baptist, the Missouri Valley also placed Bradley in the tournament as a No. 2 seed. The Braves will be making their first appearance since 1968.
As expected, the Big East advanced only tournament champion St. John’s. The Red Storm was made a No. 4 seed and placed in the Stillwater, Oklahoma, regional, where St. John’s will play Oklahoma State.
Several national observers pegged the Red Storm, winner of 15 straight games and 39-14 overall, as the most dangerous fourth seed. St. John’s coach Ed Blankmeyer won’t argue with the experts.
“We play grind it out baseball,” Blankmeyer said. “You have to beat us. Offensively, I think we’re starting to figure some things out, we have two pretty good starters and we have a bullpen that is pretty good.
“I think we can do some damage.”
Contact the writer: