Leistikow: Why Big Ten will set NCAA baseball bid record

Chad Leistikow
Illinois carried a 46-6-1 record and national RPI of 10 into Thursday’s action. Illini players Adam Walton, left, and Jason Goldstein are pictured during the Big Ten Tournament. Iowa and Illinois did not meet during the regular season.

MINNEAPOLIS – The emergence of Iowa baseball in 2015 has paralleled that of the Big Ten Conference.

That's because, in part, the two go hand in hand.

It's fitting that this week's Big Ten Tournament unfolds at Target Field, the major-league home of the Minnesota Twins. The conference is hitting the big-time as well.

Conventional wisdom has five Big Ten schools — maybe more — earning NCAA regional bids when those are doled out Monday by the selection committee. The most ever for the Big Ten is three.

"We should have six," Indiana coach Chris Lemonis said. "I know it sounds crazy."

Illinois and Iowa, the conference's top two teams all season, are locks to receive NCAA bids. Four more teams are included in D1baseball.com's Field of 64 projections released Tuesday: Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan State and Maryland as No. 3 seeds in their four-team regionals.

A seventh case could emerge, if a team like Michigan (with the Big Ten's eighth-best national RPI, at 69) were to scoop up an automatic bid by winning the conference tournament.

But how did this happen in a conference with only one College World Series representative (Indiana in 2013) in the last 30 years?

Lots of reasons.

One, facilities across the league are improving. Iowa is an example of that, with state-of-the-art upgrades (primarily new turf and a giant video board) this season at Duane Banks Field. For the first time, players have 24/7 access to batting cages, a byproduct of the football program moving into its new $55 million facility — freeing up baseball-only space in the old football building.

Indiana, which has won the last two Big Ten tournaments, has also upgraded facilities. The millions of dollars that athletic departments receive from football and basketball TV deals seems to be trickling down to second-tier sports like baseball.

Two, Maryland joining the conference instantly upgraded the Big Ten's pedigree. The Terrapins reached an NCAA Super Regional (baseball's Sweet 16) last season as an Atlantic Coast Conference member, and they've been in or hovering just outside the national top 25 all season.

Three, Illinois happened. The Illini brought a 27-game winning streak and No. 2 national ranking into Thursday's second-round game against Maryland at Target Field. Every time a Big Ten team plays Illinois (RPI of 10), that team's RPI is boosted. The Illini, love them or hate them, have made their conference brethren better.

And then there's Rick Heller's Hawkeyes, who have an RPI of 25. They were expected to be pretty good, but not this good. Perhaps the most impressive stat within Iowa's 39-14 record was a 19-5 conference mark — a .792 winning percentage that was the highest for a second-place team since the Big Ten abandoned a divisional format in 1988. Iowa is right behind Illinois in giving the Big Ten more national oomph.

So, come Monday, the Big Ten will set a record for NCAA bids. Will it be four? Five? Six? A shocking seven?

Ohio State coach Greg Beals thinks his on-the-bubble Buckeyes (RPI of 33) have a strong NCAA case despite being the first program ousted in this week's eight-team tournament. He points to its 22-7 nonconference record and how wins are harder to come by in the more-viable-than-ever Big Ten.

"We're playing good enough to beat everybody else," Beals said. "It's just, the Big Ten Conference is good."

How good? We'll find out more on Monday.