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Evaluating Michigan baseball’s NCAA Tournament hopes

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The Wolverines appear squarely on the bubble, but an all-Big Ten schedule makes their case a tough one.

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Michigan v Vanderbilt Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

In a normal year, it probably wouldn’t be much of a discussion. Michigan baseball’s No. 90 RPI and No. 141 strength of schedule, combined with a solid, but not astounding 27-17 record in a not particularly well-regarded conference, would likely preclude it from NCAA Tournament consideration.

But...wait for it.. 2021 is far from a normal year.

Due to COVID-19 concerns, the Big Ten elected to play a conference-only schedule this season. It also chose to do away with the conference tournament, meaning that the Wolverines’ postseason fate was totally out of its hands from the moment Nebraska clinched the Big Ten’s regular-season crown last weekend.

Depending on where you looked, Michigan seemed more or less safely in the field of 64 up until the last couple weeks.

But the Wolverines, with a chance to potentially snag the Big Ten’s automatic berth with series against Maryland and Nebraska, lost four out of six to the Huskers and Terrapins, who ended up finishing as the top two in the conference.

Now, Michigan is squarely on the bubble. Baseball America, which had projected the Wolverines as a No. 2 seed for the last few weeks, dropped them to a No. 3 seed on Saturday morning, where they were listed as the second-to-last team in the field.

This was before they split a doubleheader in Lincoln to cap off the regular season, which didn’t do wonders for their cause. Today’s most recent Baseball America bracket has Michigan as the fourth team out of the field, behind Georgia, Louisville and Long Beach State.

D1 Baseball is a bit more optimistic. While the Wolverines fell from a No. 2 seed in their May 24th projection to a No. 3 seed on Sunday (currently projected to land in the Austin regional with No. 3 national seed Texas), they’re a clear step above the cut line. Liberty, Fairfield, UC Santa Barbara, North Carolina and LSU, in that order, are D1 Baseball’s last five teams in.

For reference, Nebraska (RPI 42) and Maryland (57) are tabbed as No. 2 seeds by both Baseball America and D1 Baseball. No other Big Ten team besides Michigan is even among the first teams out.

The Wolverines’ mini-slide down the bubble yesterday was only slightly of their own doing. Central Florida stunned potential No. 1 seed East Carolina in the Conference USA tournament, setting up a CUSA championship matchup today against another .500 team in South Florida.

16-32 Jacksonville came out of nowhere to win the Atlantic Sun conference tournament, upsetting Liberty and suddenly throwing the Flames into the at-large mix. The same happened in the Big South, where Presbyterian knocked off Campbell.

The Dolphins and Blue Hose aren’t exactly bid thieves yet, as the Flames and Fighting Camels aren’t guaranteed spots by any means (both projected No. 3 seeds as of now). But they did make the bubble a lot more claustrophobic.

Going back to the beginning of this article: most sources have the Wolverines rated a few degrees more highly than what their metrics would normally allow. That’s probably because they’ve taken into account the Big Ten’s unique considerations.

Normally, Big Ten teams play 24 conference games and in the area of 30 non-conference games, and the assumption the likes of Baseball America and D1 Baseball are making is that Michigan’s RPI would look a lot different against that schedule.

The Wolverines have been competitive outside the Big Ten in recent years — they came within one game of winning the damn College World Series in 2019, after all — and it’s not like they, or the Big Ten as a whole, would have gotten significantly worse while sequestered within their conference.

Problem is, there’s no guarantee the NCAA selection committee will make those same assumptions. Early indications, in fact, aren’t very promising. Only three Big Ten softball teams made the tournament. Michigan, an established national presence for decades, went 36-6, won the league’s regular-season crown and didn’t get a home regional.

If the selection committee extends that same treatment to baseball, the Wolverines probably can’t feel too great about their chances.

That being said, the Big Ten, traditionally more of a mid-major in baseball, has been held in higher regard over the last decade. Since 2015, it’s received 17 at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament — as many as the Big 12 and Pac-12 over that same span. Michigan’s surprise CWS run two years ago couldn’t have hurt how the conference is perceived, either.

Bracketology is never about filling the bracket with the teams with the best resumes — it’s predicting what the selection committee will do. In a normal year, the main bracketologists out there generally have a good handle on that. In 2021, it’s anybody’s guess, especially when it comes to the Big Ten.

In any case, the Wolverines are no strangers to sweating out Selection Monday. They just missed out with a 36-21 record in 2016, were the last team to make it in 2017, and were one of the last four teams in the field in 2019.

Regardless of whether Michigan makes it or doesn’t make it this year, it will have done so by the skin of its teeth.