Iowa baseball: Hawkeyes fall short of NCAA Tournament bid

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — When a team ultimately finishes on the bubble's wrong side, the optics of that season depend on the path taken to the postseason's doorstep. 

For Iowa baseball, yet again, that route included the most pain possible. 

The Hawkeyes officially learned their NCAA Tournament fate Monday morning, with the selection committee delivering the news Iowa didn't want to hear. The Hawkeyes (26-18) will miss a regional for the third straight season, unable to overcome their late-season sputters on Selection Monday. 

Pair this ending with how the 2018 and 2019 campaigns concluded — Iowa playing its way into, then out of the NCAA Tournament — and the Hawkeyes have been tantalizingly close to becoming one of the Big Ten's premier programs. Instead, Rick Heller's bunch must again settle for a good season that left plenty on the table. 

The Iowa baseball team came tantalizingly close to another NCAA Tournament appearance, but the Hawkeyes' late-season stumbles prevented them from a regional return.

Had one said in late March that — after opening the season 4-8 with series losses to Nebraska and Michigan — Iowa would be toying with a regional appearance in May, most associated with Hawkeyes baseball would've taken that. With back-to-back postseason whiffs plus an axed 2020 campaign, perhaps the time had come around for Iowa to dance once more. 

But again, remember the fickle optics here. Soaring by the bubble to safely enter regional projections, only for things to come crashing down in the final month, isn't going to leave a favorable feeling. 

Even in dropping crucial series to Illinois (22-22) and Northwestern (15-21) over the season's final three weeks, the Hawkeyes still finished just two games out of second place and one game out of third. The Big Ten teams in those spots — Maryland (28-16) and Michigan (27-17) — both landed at-large bids. Change two (or maybe even one) result in those Illinois and Northwestern series, and Iowa almost certainly has a Memorial Day celebration.

Iowa head coach Rick Heller talks with reporters after a NCAA Big Ten Conference baseball game against Northwestern, Monday, April 26, 2021, at Duane Banks Field in Iowa City, Iowa.

After the Big Ten became college football's punching bag last fall, many will point to the conference as hindering its own schools from making the NCAA Tournament by forcing a league-only schedule. And there's some truth to that. 

The move rendered the RPI useless when comparing Big Ten schools to the rest of the country. It certainly doesn't do the league any favors when the selection committee can't accurately use college baseball's golden metric to analyze any Big Ten teams. Additionally, Iowa usually lands (and often wins) quality non-conference series to bolster its resume. The lack of midweek games didn't help, either. 

Mix those ingredients together with the already skeptical narrative that looms over Big Ten baseball, and you're bound to have a sour Selection Monday. However, Iowa isn't really an innocent victim here. 

Recency bias and the importance of playing well late is never going to fade in sports. And the Hawkeyes didn't do that. Iowa entered the final three weekends having not lost a series to a team outside the NCAA Tournament conversation then promptly dropped two of those in crunch time. Iowa undoubtedly had the easiest closing stretch of any regional-hopeful Big Ten team.

With the Hawkeyes' metrics (76 RPI, 101 SOS) — however important they may be this year — not helping out either, Iowa gave the selection committee plenty of reasons to leave it at home. 

Another circuitous route to NCAA Tournament hype, another Selection Monday of agony and despair. That's life on the bubble.

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.