LINCOLN — Two or three more wins against a couple quality opponents and Nebraska might not have needed a victory in Sunday's Big Ten tournament championship game to earn a spot in an NCAA regional.
That's how close coach Darin Erstad thinks his Huskers were from earning an at-large spot in the 64-team field.
And it's exactly why he has no intention to alter his aggressive scheduling philosophy — despite its somewhat paradoxical impact this season. The same rigorous nonconference slate that boosted the Huskers' computer rankings and catapulted them into late-season tournament consideration delayed their mid-year improvement and ultimately kept them from a postseason berth.
They finished 29-30 overall — and sub-.500 teams aren't eligible for the NCAA tournament without a conference tournament win. NU lost 4-3 against Indiana on Sunday, missing out on the title and the automatic berth.
But the Huskers controlled their fate, which appears to be most important to Erstad.
“(The selection committee) is basically telling you to schedule tough,” Erstad said, reacting to the field announced Monday. “If you schedule tough and you have some quality wins, you're going to get rewarded.”
His team will be younger in 2014, which will call for a temporary dialing back of the approach. Expect 25 to 27 home games, instead of 19 this year (two were canceled because of weather).
But still, Nebraska's schedule intentionally will be difficult. Again.
“Those types of teams we played, and that type of schedule, it's what our players want,” he said.
|BIG RED TODAY ON FACEBOOK|
|Join the conversation on the Big Red Today Facebook page.|
And it nearly catapulted them into a regional. The Huskers had the best RPI (ranked 28th nationally) among teams left out of the 64-team field and their strength of schedule (ranking anywhere from 11th to 27th) was better than every other squad in the Midwest.
So maybe Nebraska nabs an NCAA berth if it beats No. 3 Cal State Fullerton on March 19, instead of blowing a 4-0 lead. Or perhaps if it wins one (or both) of those wild midweek slugfests against No. 15 Kansas State. The Huskers were up on No. 20 Oklahoma State in the eighth inning of a doubleheader opener April 27, too.
“If we would have two to three (more) wins, against quality teams, we would have been rewarded,” Erstad said.
Instead, the Huskers are left with the painful remnants of a second-place finish in the Big Ten tournament, when they finally appeared to peak after a season full of inconsistency.
The seniors spoke positively after the loss, predicting a bright future for a program that's made progress but hasn't reached a regional since 2008.
“That's what we were striving for all year,” senior shortstop Bryan Peters said Sunday. “Obviously we came up a little bit short. I think that we definitely had the mindset and put in some good things that the younger kids can follow in the future.”
Nebraska will have to replace half its starting lineup — five departing seniors accounted for 50 percent of the Huskers' runs, 46 percent of their hits and 48 percent of their RBIs. Senior reliever Dylan Vogt is also gone after leading the team with 30 appearances, the most by a Husker since 2005.
Erstad's first full recruiting class could help fill those vacancies. NU should also have a weekend rotation in place by opening day for the first time in Erstad's tenure, assuming junior Christian DeLeon and sophomores Aaron Bummer and Kyle Kubat are back and healthy. Part-time closer Josh Roeder will return, too.
Nothing's guaranteed, though, Erstad said.
“Just when everybody says, 'Oh, that looks good' — that's when things happen,” he said. “I'm just going to keep an open mind.”
Contact the writer:
402-473-9585, email@example.com, twitter.com/JonNyatawa