The NCAA Baseball Tournament begins with the regional round on Friday. 16 teams will get the opportunity to host four-team regionals, with the hopes of advancing to Super Regional play the following weekend, and then the College World Series in Omaha starting June 12 (CORRECTION: Aargh, June 13, that is).
The 64-team field will be announced Monday, but it is already starting to take shape, as conference tournaments are contested around the country.
Big Ten baseball is not highly regarded. It might not be as bad as dregs like the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, but it's not a power conference when it comes to baseball. Three years ago, the league picked up three bids to the NCAA Tournament, and most of the college baseball world reacted with chuckles and snorts.
Those chuckles and snorts were somewhat justified, as the league hasn't won a national championship since 1966 (Ohio State), and hasn't even sent a team to Omaha since 1984 (Michigan). The league has only six national championships in baseball, so it's just not as strong as others.
Lately, however, the Big Ten has set out to improve at the sport. It appears to be working.
With plenty to be decided before Selection Monday, the Big Ten appears set to place three teams in the tournament for the second time in three years (Ohio State, Michigan, and Minnesota all made it in 2007, with Michigan advancing to a Super Regional against eventual national champion Oregon State).
Heading into the Big Ten Baseball Tournament this weekend, regular-season champion Ohio State and runner-up Minnesota appeared to be locks for the tournament. Both played some tough non-conference games throughout the year. tOSU went 3-0 at the Big East-Big Ten Challenge in Florida, and they also beat NCAA invitee Xavier.
Minnesota won two of three at Texas Christian, a team in line to host a regional. The Gophers also swept three games from Dallas Baptist, who could earn an at-large bid.
Neither team could claim the league championship and automatic NCAA bid, however. That went to third-seeded Indiana, who whipped Minnesota Thursday in their tournament opener, and then spanked the Gophers again Saturday night for the championship. IU actually was under .500 in non-conference play, and had no chance of making the tournament without the autobid. It's likely they'll be a low regional seed, but they know they have at least 54 outs left in their season.
There are inherent disadvantages to playing baseball in the Big Ten. Weather is a huge problem in the first part of the season, and it forces teams to travel to get good games in. As a result, it's hard for the league to compete for top recruits against the likes of the ACC, SEC, and Pac-10. The NCAA put in a universal start date for baseball, and they put a cap on the number of games teams can play. This helps in scheduling for the little guys, but it hasn't totally leveled the playing field just yet.
When the regional hosts are announced Sunday, look for Louisville or Virginia to be the northernmost host, meaning the Big Ten's entries will have a lot of travel ahead of them for regional play.
Part of this is the slow process of changing the balance of power in the sport. The top teams are still based in the south and west, and the NCAA is (rightfully) trying to lean the regional hosting duties to top seeds. It's simply not fair for a lot of third- and fourth-seeded teams to be hosting when top seeds are more than capable. As teams in the Big Ten and Big East continue to gain more national footing, they'll stand a better chance of hosting these events in the future.