With Nebraska’s 4-9 start to its baseball season, it begs wondering how teams in the Big Ten are okay with scheduling themselves against SEC and other southern-based teams that play year-round, while Big Ten teams have not even been able to step foot outside yet for practice. Baseball is typically played outside on dirt, not inside small facilities on non-regulation surfaces.
The SEC is an incredibly dominant conference within Division I baseball every year. Twelve months of consistent baseball training in a warm climate aids to the competitive advantage early on in the season.
These early season struggles can be an issue for Big Ten teams when it comes down to NCAA Tournament seeding after the Big Ten Tournament. Teams could lose out on postseason bids solely based on early season struggles against more prepared and ‘fresh’ southern based teams.
Huskers recruiting coordinator Lance Harvell said the struggle may not be what it seems.
“As far as the postseason seeding, a lot of times the early season games against southern/ west coast schools can help your postseason chances in terms of RPI, even if you aren’t necessarily successful in those games,” he said.
With very few days even reaching that temperature during the frigid winter months leading up to February, those practices are limited. Most seasons for the Huskers contain less than five outdoor practices before the team hits the road down south for non-conference scheduled games.
“Usually if the real feel outside is over 30 degrees we will be outside practicing,” Harvell said. “The early season scheduling with northern/ midwestern schools going south or west is 100% a weather issue. The warmer climate states usually have more favorable conditions for playing and you’re less likely to have to cancel games, so there’s more of a guarantee to get to play.”
Many Midwest teams, including the Huskers, are thankful to be able to play baseball early on in the year. There is no worry about who they are playing, they will play whoever is put in front of them.
“It’s a mixed bag on who you play,” Harvell said. “Sometimes a northern/midwestern school will play a series with a southern/ west coast school, but there are also tournaments and series where northern/midwestern schools will play each other. We did that last year when we went to Texas and played Purdue in a four-game series to start the year.”
Curtis Ledbetter is the director of operations for the baseball program at Nebraska, and does a lot of work in the offseason to prepare the best schedule possible for the team. Early season scheduling is all about RPI.
“Basically, those first three weekends we know we are going to have to be on the road” Ledbetter said. “We schedule at least two true road series against traditionally higher RPI opponents, so if you go in and win one out of three in that series, it helps the RPI ranking, it does not hurt it.”
Winning a smaller percentage of games against high RPI teams such as TCU, and Sam Houston State may not make the overall record appealing in terms of national polls, but it can help a team’s RPI ranking which is what is primarily used come tournament seeding at the end of the regular season.
“Winning one game out of a three game series at TCU’s home field is like winning two out of three games at home,” Ledbetter said. “When we schedule, we are looking for higher RPI teams on the road early in the season, mixed in with some tournaments here and there.”
Having a lower RPI ranking at the end of the season; regardless of overall record, makes it extremely difficult to make the NCAA tournament. Then it comes down to winning the conference tournament to get a bid, which can be daunting.
“The tournament is anyone’s game,” Ledbetter said. “Whoever is the hottest during those five days, wins the tournament and gets a postseason bid. So banking on that is not the smartest option.”
Ledbetter said there are no current plans for Nebraska to create new facilities to help better prepare the team during the frigid months.
“We get most of all of the work done that we need to during the offseason at our two awesome facilities,” he said. “Most ballparks we play at nowadays are all turf anyways, which is no different than what we have indoors at the Hawks and the Gordon training complex.”
Ultimately, the players just want to play the game they love. Senior pitcher Kyle Perry said that the passion outweighs the opponent.
“I just want to go out there and play ball,” he said. “Some could say it is a little unfair, but honestly the guys and I will play whoever is on the other side of the diamond, it only makes us a better team in the long run.”
It doesn’t seem as if changes will be made in terms of scheduling early on in the season, and rightfully so. For the most part, scheduling tougher and traditionally higher RPI ranked teams has more benefits than downsides for the Big Ten group.