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May 26, 2012

FROM THE PRESS BOX: ISU baseball has pluses, minuses for tourney bid

TERRE HAUTE —

Last Thursday, when Indiana State’s baseball jumped around in a celebratory dogpile after clinching the Missouri Valley Conference regular season championship at Bob Warn Field, no one thought that a little over a week later, the dreaded NCAA Tournament bubble would fly over Terre Haute.

But here the Sycamores are. ISU’s bubble will fly precariously until noon Monday when the NCAA field is unveiled.

Cinderella will have no place at ISU’s table this weekend. The more favorites who win in the conference tournaments, the better for the Sycamores. Any team in the RPI top 50 that advances in the conference tournaments is ISU’s friend.

ISU got no help from its conference brethren. A MVC bid will be stolen by either Southern Illinois or Creighton tonight in the MVC championship game.

With a better Ratings Percentage Index number and longer MVC Tournament run, Missouri State is considered to have a stronger case than ISU does to get a NCAA at-large bid.

Wichita State has a better RPI than ISU too, but the Shockers’ overall record is far weaker and ISU won the season series. Most believe if the MVC gets three bids, ISU would be the third team.

This is in spite of the fact that the Sycamores have lost four in a row and went 0-2 in the MVC Tournament. It’s hard to deny that the Sycamores have thrust themselves into the precarious position they’re in. There’s not much to do but sweat it out.

“We really haven’t done a whole lot. We’re going to practice on [Saturday] morning and scrimmage. Same thing on Sunday. All of us are anxious to find out though. It’s never fun to wait,” said ISU coach Rick Heller, who noted that he’s done “a lot” of scoreboard watching.

Heller, of course, believes the 41-17 Sycamores did enough during the regular season to merit selection to the 64-team NCAA Tournament field.

“I think the strongest case is the fact that we played great all year long. We were really consistent,” Heller said. “The fact that we won the Valley when it was as tough as it was in the last 25 years helps. And we played four out of seven series on the road in the conference. If you win this league with the year it’s had, it has got to get three teams in. I just can’t imagine that with the year the league has had, they’d keep us out.”

Here’s a look at what works in ISU’s favor and what doesn’t.

The case for ISU:

• ISU picked right year to win MVC — The Missouri Valley Conference is on course to have its best RPI season since 1999.

The league is currently sixth and is just percentage points behind Conference USA for fifth place. The upsets in the MVC Tournament have only helped the league’s RPI as all ships have risen with the upset tide.

• History is on ISU’s side — Creighton sports information director Rob Anderson sent me a nugget Friday. The sixth-rated RPI conference has put three teams in the field in 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011. In 2008, the Big West Conference got four teams in.

ISU is also over the 40-win mark, which is considered to be an important threshold as far as overall record is concerned.

• Dallas Baptist — Dallas Baptist played a partial MVC schedule in 2011 and 2012 as part of a probationary period installed before it could join the MVC as a baseball-only member. DBU decided instead to join the Western Athletic Conference, but in its tour of the MVC, DBU gave everyone’s schedule a big RPI lift. DBU’s RPI is 24 and it will make the NCAA field.

ISU might have benefited the most. ISU won the series against them and DBU is the major reason ISU has a 5-5 record against RPI top 50 teams.

• Purdue — Yes, ISU was one out away from knocking off Purdue in West Lafayette. It would have been huge and the extra-inning loss was disappointing.

But merely playing the Boilermakers gave ISU a RPI lift. ISU’s RPI is at 45 as of this writing. If ISU hadn’t played Purdue, it’s RPI might on the wrong side of 50.

“I think us playing Purdue, even we lost, was a good thing on our part. I think the committee will like that we scheduled that game when we did,” Heller noted.

The case against ISU:

• Poor finish — ISU lost five of its last six games. Three of the games were to quality opponents (Purdue and Missouri State twice), two were to weaker MVC teams (Evansville and Creighton).

I’ve been told that the season finish doesn’t carry as much as weight in baseball as it does in basketball. Perhaps. But ISU did itself no favors and gave the committee something negative to consider regardless.

• MVC regular season champions have been left out before — Missouri State was left out as an outright conference champion in 2009 and 2010 co-champion Wichita State was also on the outside looking in. It should be noted, however, that the MVC’s conference RPI was far weaker in both of those seasons. The MVC was 17th in 2009 and 15th in 2010.

• Strength of schedule — ISU probably had its best nonconference schedule in several years this season with Notre Dame, Kansas and  Missouri on the slate. But it’s a testament to how hard it is for northern teams to schedule when ISU’s strength of schedule still ended up 140th nationally.

Northern teams usually get a break when it comes to strength of schedule as weight is given to the regional nature of the sport and that inter-sectional games aren’t feasible. But it’s not a certainty.

• MVC’s history with bubble isn’t kind — It has nothing to do with resumes or anything logical, really, but MVC teams in several sports (including MVFC football) over the years have made rational arguments based on RPI, strength of schedule, etc., for inclusion in the NCAA Tournament only to be left at the altar.

Too often in recent years, when a MVC team has been on the bubble, it has popped. Ask Missouri State. Ask Illinois State. Ask seemingly half of the MVFC membership last season.

Woe to those who get too overconfident when all seems assured — including a certain columnist who said ISU was in for sure a week ago.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or todd.golden@tribstar.com. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.

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