Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich believed his team was talented enough to make the 64-team NCAA Tournament field. What he didn’t know was whether a Big Ten-only schedule would hurt the Wolverines.
They finished the season 27-17, but lost three of their last four, including two to Big Ten champion Nebraska. Michigan was one of the final four teams in the tournament, which was revealed Monday afternoon, and will play in the Notre Dame Regional, along with Mid-American Conference champion Central Michigan (40-16).
Michigan, a No. 3 seed in the Regional, will face UConn (33-18) at 7 p.m. Friday. It will stream live on ESPN3. CMU, which earned an automatic bid, will face No. 10 overall seed Notre Dame (30-11) at 1 p.m. It is double-elimination and 16 teams will advance to the Super Regionals.
Central Michigan has won the last two MAC championships and is playing in its second straight NCAA Tournament. The Chippewas beat Toledo, 5-4, in the first game of a doubleheader on Sunday to clinch the title and followed that with a 10-1 victory. They were 31-9 in the MAC and won their final eight games. In late March, CMU was 8-8 overall and 0-2 in the conference.
The last time the NCAA Tournament was held — the 2020 tournament was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic — Michigan was the national runner-up to Vanderbilt in 2019. Three Big Ten teams made the field, including Nebraska and Maryland.
Bakich said much of the reason for the conference sending only three teams is because of the Big Ten-only, 44-game schedule.
“The Big Ten, we did this to ourselves,” Bakich said Monday to a group of reporters. “I don’t blame the selection committee. I wouldn’t have blamed the selection committee one bit if we were not included. They already have a tough enough job, and we as a conference made their job even harder by not having any information to compare the Big Ten teams to in terms of playing those measurables against nonconference opponents.”
He called the decision an “uncontrollable” the Big Ten teams had to deal with.
“Nobody wanted a 44-game conference-only schedule,” Bakich said of the conference coaches. “And we all knew that could negatively affect our opportunities to play in the postseason because you couldn’t evaluate our teams against outside competition. And coupled with finishing third in the conference not knowing if three teams were going to get in, or two teams, yeah, all those things led to some tense moments. I sure am glad we got in, though.”
Bakich said that as soon as it was decided Big Ten football teams would play a conference-only schedule last fall, he and the other baseball coaches in the league knew they would face a similar reduction in their schedules.
“We were reduced from 15 weeks to 13 weeks and our main argument was at least let us play four games a weekend in those 13 weeks so we can get to more games instead of 44,” he said. “Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.”
This is the fourth NCAA Tournament bid appearance for Michigan under Bakich, who is in his ninth season with the Wolverines. The Wolverines are led by sophomore second baseman Ted Burton and junior pitcher Steven Hajjar, both named All Big Ten first team last week. Burton finished the regular season ranked second in the conference in slugging percentage (.673) and third in batting average (.355). Hajjar, a left-hander, has a 2.85 ERA, fifth in the Big Ten, and has 101 strikeouts in 72.5 innings.
By not playing a nonconference schedule, Bakich said he and his players missed an opportunity to measure themselves against many of the nation’s best teams. He shared how playing at Texas Tech in 2019 helped the Wolverines that made the postseason run to the World Series final against Vanderbilt. Michigan went 0-3 early that season in Lubbock, Texas.
“(We got) absolutely bullied by the Red Raiders in Lubbock, and they were running out guys out of their bullpen, their eighth, ninth, 10th, 11th pitchers throwing upper 90s, and it was a barometer for us to see what the top-level teams are and what their bullpens look like, what their starting pitching looks like, what a first-rounder looks like. For us, it was like, ‘Whoa, OK, we need to turn our machines up a little bit harder,’ because, yeah, we’re training our guys to win the Big Ten, but we’re training our guys to go to Omaha, too. We need to beat teams like Texas Tech.
“That was a great measuring stick that we need to be this much better and we’re not there and we need to improve a whole lot. When the Big Ten teams like us and any of the other teams can go out early in the nonconference schedule and challenge themselves with some other Power 5 opponents, especially some good ones, you get great feedback where you stand compared to them and what you need to work on.”
The Wolverines might have been sweating it during the selection show, but now that they’re in, they’re focused on UConn, which he described as a “complete” team. In fact, he said they’re referring to it as “the UConn Regional”.
“Whoever your opponent is,” Bakich said, “that’s the regional you’re in.”
SOUTH BEND REGIONAL
At Frank Eck Stadium, South Bend, Indiana
► No. 1 seed Notre Dame (30-11) vs. No. 4 seed Central Michigan (40-16), 1 p.m. (ESPN3)
► No. 2 seed UConn (33-17) vs. No. 3 seed Michigan (27-17), 7 p.m. (ESPN3)
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