Indiana’s coach didn’t feel compelled to say much to his players Saturday night after they’d watched Nebraska’s struggling catcher extend the Big Ten tournament one more day with a game-winning home run.
Tanner Lubach was only prolonging the inevitable. At least, that was the Hoosiers’ mindset.
So IU coach Tracy Smith let his guys find their own way to deal with the disappointment of a 7-6 extra-innings loss. He left them alone on the bus ride back. At Sunday morning’s pregame breakfast, too.
And the Hoosiers won the conference tournament title game a few hours later.
“I loved our guys’ mindset,” Smith said after the win. “I’m a pretty confident guy. But those guys gave me confidence because they were so relaxed. ‘Hey, we got this. We’re fine.’ ”
No. 12 Indiana, hosting a regional this week for the first time, doesn’t have anything to prove about Big Ten baseball. The players already believe in themselves, certain they belong at the College World Series with the rest of the nation’s best.
“All season long we’ve been talking about Omaha,” senior shortstop Michael Basil said. “It’s been a goal of ours. If we play our best baseball, we know that we have all the talent to get there.”
A Big Ten team hasn’t reached the CWS since Michigan in 1984. No conference representative has even made it out of the regional round in the past five seasons. The league is just 37-46 (.446) in NCAA tournament action since 1999.
But it appears that the Big Ten has a chance to end that drought.
For the first time in a decade, the conference has sent at least two teams to the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons. IU is joined by Illinois in this year’s 64-team field after Purdue and Michigan State made regionals last season.
League coaches gushed over the talent in last week’s conference tournament in Minneapolis, perhaps the deepest field of six since the league adopted a new format in 2002.
All of those games were on BTN, which continues to make a recruiting impact, according to Smith. His phone blows up with texts and emails every time IU makes a TV appearance. “That wasn’t happening seven years ago,” he said.
And in that time frame, nine Big Ten baseball programs have made major stadium renovations or simply built new structures.
But perhaps the most significant sign of the league’s evolution: Big Ten teams can now oversign by up to two scholarships, and they can divide that extra money among as many players as they like.
Until recently, the Big Ten allowed teams to use just one more scholarship than they were losing in their senior class, splitting the money among no more than two players.
Oversigning allows college baseball teams to protect themselves against the loss of non-seniors in the major league draft. No other conference regulates oversigning in baseball, according to NU coach Darin Erstad. He and former Athletic Director Tom Osborne have made a strong push for this legislation since joining the league.
Had those rules, adopted last month, been in place five years ago, perhaps Indiana would already have made its national splash.
Three juniors on the Hoosiers’ 2009 NCAA tournament team were among the top 50 selections in that summer’s professional baseball draft. They went pro, and without replacements, Indiana was a .500 team that missed the postseason for the next three years.
The Hoosiers are having their milestone year now, though. These players don’t have the ’09 talent, according to Smith, though the team still ranks seventh nationally in ERA (2.57) and 21st in batting average (.305). Smith said during nonconference play that opposing coaches often went out of their way to compliment IU after the series.
Indiana’s group doesn’t really need the ego boost, as demonstrated by its confidence entering Sunday’s game with Nebraska.
And maybe it’s the intangible ingredient that propels the Hoosiers on a CWS run.
“I don’t have to deal with anything except making lineups,” Smith said. “This group, they’re so focused on baseball and so focused on each other, they don’t care who gets the credit as long as we get the win. That’s a rarity.”
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