As Nebraska baseball coach Darin Erstad said Sunday: Playoff mode is here.
The Huskers have three regular-season games remaining in a home series against Michigan beginning Thursday that the Big Ten Network will televise. Implications in the matchup with the league leader are heavy — NU could finish anywhere from first to seventh in the standings.
But just how “on the bubble” is Nebraska as it chases its fourth NCAA tournament berth in six years?
Nebraska (26-19, 13-8 Big Ten) has at least five more games to strengthen its case. Three with Michigan before the double-elimination Big Ten tourney beginning May 22 in Omaha. Regional pairings will be unveiled May 27.
The NCAA selection committee has said in recent seasons that RPI is a “starting point” in how it winnows the field to 64 teams. But there are a variety of other factors that play into the fate of 33 at-large qualifiers. Let’s look at some of the most important before reaching a verdict on what Nebraska may still need to accomplish.
RPI (Nebraska’s is 38)
Though men’s college basketball abandoned the metric last year, RPI remains the foundation for postseason baseball selections. The formula weighs a team’s winning percentage (25%), opponents’ winning percentage (50%) and opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage (25%). There is extra value for a road win and less value for a victory at home.
RPI “snubs” happen every year (we’ll get into why shortly). Kentucky missed at 30 last year. The first four teams out, according to the committee, were Northeastern (35), Dallas Baptist (36), Troy (39) and Oklahoma State (41). The first four missing in 2017 were South Carolina (32), Connecticut (38), Miami (41) and Old Dominion (50).
Recent Big Ten schools to fall short despite competitive selection-day RPIs were Illinois (47 last year), Michigan (38 in 2016) and Ohio State (41 in 2015). League schools to earn at-large bids include Ohio State (37 last year), Nebraska (44 in 2017 and 47 in 2016) and Minnesota (50 in 2016).
League record (Nebraska is 13-8 with three games left)
One metric the committee has prioritized in its at-large picks is success within the conference.
Kentucky’s gaudy RPI from a season ago was offset by a 13-17 mark in the SEC, and the NCAA field included only one team with a losing league record. Another team among the first four left out, Arizona, held an RPI of 26 but went 14-16 in the Pac-12.
South Carolina (32) just missed in 2017 after going 13-17 in its conference. Same for North Carolina (10) in 2016. Same for UNC (26), Georgia Tech (37) and Alabama (44), which were sub-.500 in league play in 2015.
Nonconference strength of schedule (Nebraska is No. 3)
Isolating the “nonconference” portion of strength of schedule is a more recent metric used to measure the quality of a school’s record. Of course, teams have to win enough of those games for it to matter.
A school’s record against top-100 RPI teams is a good reference point. Ohio State qualified last year while 55th in nonconference SOS and was 14-13 against those top 100 teams. Illinois (72nd, 11-11) missed out.
Other Big Ten teams were good examples in 2017. Qualifiers included Maryland (76th, 10-11), Nebraska (92nd, 13-12) and Michigan (167th, 12-9).
The first four out in 2017 had these numbers: South Carolina (22nd, 22-23), Miami (17th, 20-23), Old Dominion (159th, 18-13), Connecticut (131st, 17-18).
Nebraska is third in nonconference SOS and 11-18 against top-100 RPI clubs ahead of the series with Michigan (41 RPI).
League tournament winners are assured spots in the NCAA field. That affects at-large candidates.
That played out to an extreme in 2017 when Rice (39 RPI), Oklahoma State (40), Sam Houston State (54), Dallas Baptist (65), Xavier (75) and Iowa (83) all won in conferences that had at least one other strong at-large candidate. As a result, Miami (41) saw its 44-year regional streak snapped and South Carolina — a two-time national champ this decade — had no space for benefit of the doubt.
Verdict: On the bubble
Nebraska’s postseason fate is probably yet to be decided. Its biggest assets are the third-ranked nonconference strength of schedule and respectable league record. Series wins over Baylor and Arizona State are valuable, as is the Texas Tech victory.
The record against top-100 RPI teams hurts, especially 4-8 against squads in the 51-100 range (see: series losses to Minnesota, Iowa and Northwestern). And the Huskers aren’t exactly hot, having lost nine of their past 15 games.
What will it take for Nebraska to play into June? Winning the weekend against Michigan would almost certainly give NU the résumé boost it needs. Claim one game, and suddenly the Big Ten tourney takes on added importance. Getting swept might mean tourney title or bust.
Playoff baseball is already here.