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Can Indiana boost Big Ten's baseball prestige?

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Follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at www.twitter.com/pdiprimio

Conference doesn't wow NCAA selection committee

Thursday, May 30, 2013 - 3:30 am

BLOOMINGTON -- Do you believe in conspiracies? Do you see mysterious forces at work when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade get phantom fouls in the final seconds of Miami's NBA playoff loss to Indiana on the same night Mariano Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher in history, blows a save by giving up two runs in the ninth inning, without getting an out, against the New York Mets?

Then look deep into the fact that Indiana, despite a record-breaking baseball season against solid competition, did not get a top-8 seed in the NCAA tourney or that the Big Ten only got one at-large team (Illinois) in the 64-team field. Left out was Michigan State (33-17) and its No. 42 RPI.

Hoosier coach Tracy Smith has looked, and if diplomacy coats his comments, well, criticizing those in power isn't usually a good idea. IU did, after all, get to host a regional this weekend at new Bart Kaufman Field. It is the No. 1 seed in the regional and a favorite to make it to next week's Super Regionals, something it has never done before in school history.

“It's ironic that we're the sixth rated conference (in the country) and we got one at-large bid,” Smith said. “Someday I would love to know what we have to do to get more teams in the NCAA tournament. I know the simple answer is win, but we had some good RPI schools that didn't get in.”

The Big Ten is a national heavyweight in such sports as basketball, wrestling and, usually, football. But baseball plays in the shadows of such powerhouse leagues as the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12. It's been 10 years since a Big Ten team advanced to the Super Regional and 30 years since a conference team reached the College World Series.

Ohio State is the last Big Ten team to win a national baseball championship. That was in 1966.

“When you look at the resumes at the end of the day, when you look at it on paper, I understand where the selection committee is coming from,” Smith said. “What gets lost in all of that -- I don't want to say the lack of respect for the Big Ten conference -- but more a lack of emphasis on what northern schools have to do in the first half of the season, even to put themselves into position (to get an at-large bid).”

Playing in a northern environment means cold weather lingers into March or later. To avoid that, and to ensure they face good competition (the NCAA selection committee emphasizes strength of schedule), IU played its first 16 games in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

“I know it's asking a lot,” Smith said, “and it's probably a stretch to ask the committee to consider those things when looking at a national seed, but I think we did everything we could. We played a tough schedule considering the budget and travel restrictions.

“At the end of the day we're happy we're hosting.”

Indiana did come close to earning a top-eight seed. The first six seeds -- No. 1 North Carolina, No. 2 Vanderbilt, No. 3 Oregon State, No. 4 Louisiana State, No. 5 Cal State Fullerton and No. 6 Virginia -- were obvious choices, selection committee chairman Dennis Farrell said.

IU was in the running for the last two seeds along with Florida State, Oregon, and North Carolina State. Florida State got the No. 7 seed. Oregon was the No. 8 seed.

“We had a very robust discussion about all four of those schools,” Farrell said. “At the end of the day, it just came down to a vote of the committee. It was very, very tight.”

The top-seeded Hoosiers (43-13) will play No. 4 Valparaiso (31-26) on Friday night after No. 2 Austin Peay (45-13) plays third-seed Florida (29-28) in the double-elimination regional.

The Indiana regional winner will play the Florida State regional winner in the Super Regional. If Florida State wins, it will host next week's Super Regional because of its higher seed. If Florida State loses and IU wins, it will host next week's Super Regional.

Super Regional winners advance to the College World Series at Omaha, Neb.

Smith isn't messing around with this opportunity. The Hoosiers, who have never reached the Super Regional round before, returned from their Big Ten tourney title game in Minnesota about 10 p.m. Sunday. On Monday morning, Memorial Day, they lifted weights. That afternoon, they practiced.

Smith understands the stakes, for his program and for the rest of the Big Ten -- win big and future selection committees could reward the conference. Nebraska coach Darin Erstad said as much after his Cornhuskers lost to IU in Sunday's Big Ten tourney title game.

“He was like, 'Hey, man, I hope you take it all the way to Omaha for the conference,'” Smith said. “I don't think he was saying that just to make me feel good. That's the general consensus that we all want each other to do well because it helps all of us.”