Bob Asmussen: Wait 'til next year
You are a college baseball team. Cruising along with a winning season. Hoping to keep going.
Then, pfffft. In an instant, it is over.
Two losses to Michigan State — one close, one blowout — killed the NCAA tournament dreams for the Illinois baseball team.
Coach Dan Hartleb was at a game this week, watching the Cardinals in St. Louis. But he would much rather have been preparing his team for one of the 16 regionals.
The Illini endured the pairings announcement together Monday. Sixty-four spots were unveiled. None of them said “Illinois.”
“I was disappointed,” Hartleb said. “There are two sides to that. One side is the fact that I’d like to see the NCAA give a little more recognition to the Northern schools. On the flip side to it, we also had other opportunities to have a better resume.”
Was leaving out the Illini the right call? Depends who you ask.
The team finished third in the improving Big Ten. That’s a plus.
Hartleb saw some teams in the field that he knows aren’t as good as his Illini.
“We played better down the stretch than some teams that got in,” Hartleb said. “You have an opportunity to win a tournament and get in. We didn’t do that. Early in the year, there were some series that we did not win that hurt us. You can sit there and talk about different reasons you didn’t get in, but bottom line is if you win more games, you give yourself a better opportunity.”
Illinois went 32-21 overall and 17-7 in the Big Ten. The two teams ahead of Hartleb’s team in the Big Ten, Indiana and Nebraska, made the NCAA field.
The Illini watched the pairings in their clubhouse. Afterward, they had a long meeting. The topic: making sure they didn’t feel that disappointment again.
“Hopefully, with guys not seeing our name up there, they are motivated to be a better team next year,” Hartleb said.
Nobody chucked a bat at the TV. Nobody stormed out of the room.
“We challenged the group on a number of areas,” Hartleb said. “We’ve got to get better.”
In college basketball, there are options for teams that don’t make the NCAA field: the NIT, CBI, CIT.
In baseball, there are no secondary competitions.
“I think there are enough quality teams that are left out of the tournament you could have a great NIT-type tournament,” Hartleb said. “It comes down to a cost factor. But as much money as they are making off the College World Series ...”
The baseball championship is the NCAA’s No. 2 revenue producer, after men’s basketball.
Might be time to start a second tournament. How about the Loren Tate Invitational? Hosted by Illinois? Hartleb’s team would happily play.
The Illini will watch the NCAA tournament and root for their Big Ten rivals. When it comes to the postseason, they are all on the same side.
“You have your teams you don’t like, but when our Big Ten teams are playing out of conference, you have to root for all of them,” Hartleb said. “That helps our conference RPI, which gives us all more opportunities to be playing in championships at the end of the year.”
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Indiana is looking for a second consecutive trip to the College World Series. Can the Hoosiers win it all?
“I think Indiana is a really good club,” Hartleb said. “The top and middle of their lineup is good. I thought they were a little better at the bottom of their order last year. I do think their pitching has improved from last year. They have a legitimate shot to get back to Omaha. I think they are capable of going in there and winning the thing, and I think they are capable of going in there and being 0-2 and done. I think that about every team that gets in that situation.”
The next challenge for Hartleb is the upcoming baseball draft.
Hartleb expects pitchers Ronnie Muck and Drasen Johnson could hear their names called. Johnson has a year left of eligibility, so he might have a post-draft decision to make.
“I’m hopeful he can command the kind of signing bonus that he is interested in,” Hartleb said. “If not, we’d love to have him back. We have a chance to have a very good team next year.”
Bob Asmussen writes Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Picks to click
The NCAA baseball tournament starts this week at 16 sites. Here are Bob Asmussen’s three teams to keep an eye on as they make their way toward Omaha, Neb.:
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Yes, Augie Garrido is still in charge in Austin. The former Illinois head coach has worked wonders as the lead Longhorn. But there are some who are eager to see him move on. The selection committee had some fun, pairing Texas with bitter rival Texas A&M in the opener.