Iowa baseball: Hawkeyes' sweep over Michigan State likely comes too late to rescue regional hopes

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

As the runs piled up Sunday to finish off lowly Michigan State, those associated with Iowa baseball should've been celebrating the final step toward a regional return. An emphatic sweep with two double-digit days is how the Hawkeyes should've handled one of the Big Ten's worst.    

Only, these brooms likely came too late. 

Having played its way off the bubble with late-season stumbles against pedestrian Big Ten foes, Iowa's three-game drubbing of the Spartans will be more frustrating than bid-saving. The Hawkeyes (26-18) will officially know their NCAA Tournament fate Monday when the selection show begins at 11 a.m. (CT) on ESPN2. The current projections are not favorable. 

Both D1Baseball and Baseball America had the Hawkeyes dangling outside the field of 64 at weekend's start, planted in the first group out. By Sunday evening, neither outlet had Iowa on the board— with the Big Ten as a whole trending downward.

The league is certain to get two teams in — regular-season champion Nebraska and surging Maryland — with Michigan an expected third add as well. Indiana and Iowa spent several weeks solidly in tournament prognostications, but untimely skids from both will likely cost them on Selection Monday.

The Hawkeyes and Hoosiers finished tied for fourth in the league standings, which are more pivotal than ever in 2021 with the Big Ten playing a conference-only slate. However, Iowa drops to fifth by virtue of its series loss at Indiana in early May.

Iowa outfielder Ben Norman is the only starter left from the Hawkeyes' 2017 NCAA Tournament. It seems Norman won't get another shot at a regional after Iowa played its way off the bubble late.

Even the most seasoned college baseball analysts don't fully know how the selection committee will handle the Big Ten, which rendered the RPI useless this season by not playing non-conference games. Still, it's hard to see a committee that rarely throws the Big Ten bones extending itself to give the league any benefit of doubt. 

Three teams in? Probably.

Four teams in? A chance.

Five teams in? Doubtful.

“We’ve had success in regionals every time we’ve been in,” Iowa coach Rick Heller said in one final postseason pitch. “Our league has averaged 4.5 teams in the tournament the last five years, and I don’t believe it should be any different this year.”

One thing should be clear, though. If Iowa doesn't hear its name called Monday, this isn't a story about a biased committee slighting a program that did everything it could to construct a worthy NCAA Tournament resume. For this impending disappointment, the Hawkeyes have no one to blame but themselves. 

Just one or two more performances like this weekend, and Iowa waltzes into its first regional since 2017 without any trouble. Just look at Maryland, which was tied with Iowa in the Big Ten standings on May 14 with nine games left. The Terrapins closed 7-2 to win all three remaining series. Iowa mustered 5-4 while dropping two series to teams without winning records. 

One will be dancing. One likely won't.

That would be a painful ending given how well Iowa played for extended stretches. The Hawkeyes still won seven of their last 10 series, including nine consecutive Friday victories, to resurrect a season that was slipping away. Victories of 12-1, 7-4 and 11-3 over Michigan State (17-27) tried to send one final resounding message.

“We’re playing great baseball, and I believe we’re an NCAA regional team,” Heller said. “I believe we’re deserving to be in regionals. Twenty-six wins in the Big Ten is a big deal, six wins against the top three teams and nine straight Friday victories. Not many people have done that.”

After postseason whiffs in 2018 and 2019 — plus a canceled 2020 season — Iowa had seemingly gone through enough for its next NCAA Tournament appearance. 

Instead, the wait will almost certainly continue. 

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.