Let’s start with this: The Huskers truly believe that they have the talent and ability to earn an NCAA tournament berth this spring. They aren’t shy in admitting that.
On the first day of practice last month, senior Chad Christensen said reaching an NCAA Regional is “on our minds every single day we come out here. That’s what we all want.”
Will it happen? How realistic is that goal?
Before I attempt to craft an answer, I should note that the 2013 Huskers — with questions on the mound and behind the plate — could drastically change their makeup within a month. And honestly, even then, despite what occurs in February and March, this experienced NU team is a legit contender to win the Big Ten tournament and earn an automatic NCAA bid.
But … It’s February. A presumably unpredictable Big Ten tourney is three months away.
So, no sense in waiting until then to examine the possible construction of Nebraska’s at-large resume. Right?
I’ve come up with three intangible factors (there’s more, I’m sure) that could keep the Huskers from joining June’s 64-team event: 1. NU’s four-year dive off the national stage and the impact that’s had on clubhouse psyche. 2. The kind of brutal non-conference slate (starts on Friday!) that’s usually reserved for downtrodden program just looking for a paycheck. 3. The weakening reputation of its new league.
1. Winner’s mind-set: We’ll keep this one short because the players seem to be correcting the problem by emulating the attitude and approach of Darin Erstad and his staff. Nebraska responded well to adversity last year, but it was rarely the one setting the tone (like a tough-minded and elusive boxer who can’t land a punch, and sometimes doesn’t even swing). Expecting — not hoping — to win.
2. The schedule: NU has 31 out-of-league games and I’ll break them down like this: 10 You-Must-Be-Crazy road games against teams that have won at least 75 percent of their home contests over the last five years (four at Cal State Fullerton and two weekend series at UC Irvine and at Texas); five more You-Must-Be-Crazy games at Haymarket Park (weekend series vs. New Mexico and midweek vs. Arkansas); six Backyard-Brawls (three each with K-State and Creighton); and 10 Near-Must-Wins (a three-game series at Louisiana Tech, two midweeks vs. N-Colorado, a doubleheader vs. Oklahoma State and single game match-ups with CSU Bakersfield, USC and Rutgers).
Got that? If not, just examine the schedule yourself. … Now, here’s the goods: No team earned an at-large NCAA bid with a non-conference record under .500 last year. So let’s just say, for the sake of this blog, that Nebraska needs 16 wins (at the very least). … Good news? Even if the Huskers lose both to Arkansas, win just one of three against Texas/UC Irvine/New Mexico and drop another random one (say to Bakersfield in the opener?), they could still theoretically get there — by taking the season series with K-State and Creighton, splitting against Oklahoma State and Fullerton, and winning everything else. None of that will be easy, though.
3. Big Ten’s street cred: Michigan State got an at-large bid last year, marking just the second time in the last five seasons that the conference had more than one team in the NCAA tournament. I’ve written plenty about this subject and all the obstacles that seem to be hindering the league. Excuses aside, though. The only way perception changes is on the field. Big Ten teams have to win more non-conference games, against marquee opponents. They’ll have several chances this spring (not just Nebraska).
Indiana has a three-game series at Florida (March 8-10). Ohio State hosts Oregon for a three-game set (May 10-12). Purdue plays two at Mississippi State (Feb. 22-23). Baylor goes to Illinois for three (March 8-10). Kentucky plays three games against Michigan State (March 8-10). Texas travels to for a three-game series at Minnesota (March 27-29), which also opens the season at UCLA this weekend.
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Back to the question at hand.
Is this Nebraska team NCAA-Regional-worthy?
The players and coaches believe they have all the on-paper credentials to get there. Assuming improvement on the mound, it’s difficult to disagree with that.
But, as this way-too-early preseason tourney dissection seems to reveal, there might just be a few too many hurdles for Nebraska. At least in terms of the at-large discussion.
Maybe the Huskers are on the bubble in May. But would the selection committee pick an upper-level Big Ten representative over the seventh- or eighth-place squad from the SEC/ACC/Pac-12? Eh, probably not — unless that Big Ten team had 37-40 wins (at least).
Of course, that doesn’t mean the Huskers can’t build off their midseason setbacks and start playing their best baseball on Memorial Day weekend. Win the Big Ten tourney — and then the season’s low points, and the national perspective, and the RPI (the formula is changing this year, by the way), and the recent NU history won’t matter.
We’ll see what this group can do.