Special to 10 Innings
If one were on a quest to find the most compelling piece of evidence that Big Ten baseball is healthier than ever and reaching new heights annually, they would have choices.
Perhaps the most obvious piece of evidence is the sheer number of teams the league can expect to put into regionals year after year.
Between 1999 (when the NCAA Tournament field expanded to its current 64-team format) and 2014, the most teams the Big Ten placed in a regional was three; occurring in 2005, 2007, and 2009. Since, the conference has placed three or more teams into regionals each of the last three years, including five teams in both 2015 and 2017.
Simply put, the conference has gone from being a one or two-bid league that would get three teams in their better years, to a league that expects to have multiple regional teams each year, with a chance to get more than one-third of their league teams into regionals in their best years.
A better indicator of the overall health of the conference, though, might be the diversity of the teams that get into regionals from the Big Ten. Between 1999 and 2010, for example, of the 22 instances of a Big Ten team getting into regionals, 19 were Michigan, Ohio State, or Minnesota.
In the years since, they’ve had 21 postseason appearances spread across nine different programs. It’s clearly more than just a select few programs making waves on behalf of the league at this point.
The ceiling has also been raised on the quality of the teams that are getting into regionals. With Purdue hosting in 2012, Indiana hosting in both 2013 and 2014, with the Hoosiers earning a national seed in ’14, and Illinois hosting both a regional and a super regional in 2015 as a national seed, the Big Ten hosted regionals for four consecutive seasons, which would have been inconceivable as recently as six or seven years ago. And Indiana, of course, got to Omaha in 2013, giving the league its first College World Series team since Michigan in 1984.
If one were looking for qualitative pieces of evidence, there are those too, such as the boom in facility construction across the league. Just about every team in the league has seen massive renovations (or complete rebuilds) of their facilities in recent years, and that includes some impressive indoor facility improvements.
Of course, one could also look at this weekend’s DQ Baseball Classic as evidence of the Big Ten’s rising presence in the national college baseball landscape.
The Pac-12 teams didn’t just show up to get some games in a unique environment like US Bank Stadium and to get some practice navigating through piles of snow on every sidewalk in the city. They’re here because they know they’re going to get three quality games that will challenge their teams and serve as positives on a postseason resume.
And in fact, the coach of the Pac-12 program in this tournament with the highest expectations is the one who started it all from his league’s perspective.
When Minnesota head coach John Anderson hatched the idea to reinvent the DQ Classic as a league challenge tournament, he called up UCLA head coach John Savage, pitched him the idea, and then asked if he could get a couple of other Pac-12 teams involved.
“I always liked the idea of trying to have a challenge, especially against some of the other power five conferences,” Anderson said. “If we’re trying to improve our image as a conference, and we’re trying to change that perception that’s out there to some degree, you have to get people from some of these conferences, you have to get together with them and play.
“And I think that’s how you improve your image,” Anderson continued. “I think that’s how you change people’s opinions, and also for your own players on your own team, they get a glimpse of what the national picture looks like and how you compare and what you need to do and improve.”
So, as it was over the weekend, a tournament featured a top-15 team from out west in UCLA and two other Pac-12 teams in Arizona and Washington that harbor very real postseason aspirations.
It was a tournament, frankly, that might have been difficult to see taking place at all in a previous iteration of the Big Ten, when the league wasn’t as widely respected as it is now.
Dan Hartleb, the head coach at Illinois for the last 13 seasons, and an assistant at the school for 15 years prior to that, would know about as well as anyone how far the league has come in a short time.
“I think, for both leagues, it’s a really, really good concept,” Hartleb said of the tournament. “It’s really, really important for our league. I feel really strongly, over the past five or six years, our league has really risen, and we have much better players in the league, the coaches are really good. I’m impressed with where we’ve gone.”
Hartleb’s Illinois team highlighted the weekend from a Big Ten standpoint, as they were crowned champions of the event after going 3-0, with close, hard-fought wins over UCLA and Arizona to begin the weekend before earning a comfortable win over Washington to clinch the title on Sunday.
The Illini played the cleanest, most consistent baseball of the weekend, but the event was marked by quality performances all around from the Big Ten representatives, with both Minnesota and Michigan State capturing victories, each in walk-off fashion.
Overall, the Big Ten won the challenge against their Pac-12 foes five wins to four, helping to prove what Anderson has suspected about the comparison between the two leagues.
“I don’t think there’s a big difference between the Pac-12 and the Big Ten currently with where we are today as a conference, the players in this league, the coaches, I don’t think the gap is as wide as some people think it is,” he said.
“I’ll say this, an Oregon State, they played the game at a pretty high level last year, they’re doing it again this year, I think they (the Pac-12) might have an elite team or two up there sometimes that maybe are better than our top team, but I don’t think, as a conference as a whole, there’s a big difference across the conference from top bottom. I don’t.”
Anderson’s hope is that this tournament will continue to be a showcase of what the Big Ten can do on a national scale against teams from power conferences, without having to travel south or west to do so.
“Usually when we play them (other power conference teams), we have to play them on the road early in the year,” he said. “This was an opportunity where we didn’t have to play them in their ballpark, and we could get them (here), and at least in Illinois and Michigan State’s case, on a neutral site situation, and have a chance to play them in a different environment than you normally do, which, I think, is a fair environment.”
In part thanks to the Final Four being in Minneapolis in 2019, the DQ Baseball Classic will be forced to take a year off, but the plan is for it to pick back up in 2020, with Iowa and Purdue representing the Big Ten against teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference. The 2020 edition, in fact, is just the start of Anderson’s hopes for the event.
“We’re going to do the ACC in 2020, and I think it’ll be good,” Anderson said. “I’d like to be able to have it at one of the Pac-12 schools, and then come back here. We could do it in both places in the same year if you wanted to. One year there, one year here, whatever you want to do. I think it’s just great for college baseball. I think it’s good for our conferences to do this. No question about it.”
If that sounds wide-eyed and optimistic about the future of what the DQ Baseball Classic can be, think about how wide-eyed and optimistic it might have sounded in the past for the Big Ten to say that they wanted to get five teams into the postseason.
And look where they are now.