It wasn’t long after the NCAA Baseball Regional pairings were released that there was squabbling from the University of Nebraska contingent on social media.
After all, the Cornhuskers ran roughshod through the Big 10, finishing ahead of second-place Michigan by 3.5 games.
That, you would think, most years would earn team a regional home bid. However, the Big 10 could’ve hurt Nebraska by not allowing member programs to schedule nonconference games. The schedule restriction was a COVID-19 protocol, as was playing games in pods with one team as a host.
Some theorize the pairing has to do with the aforementioned Big 10 schedule, while others figure that Lincoln’s proximity to Fayetteville allowed for cheaper bus transportation as compared to flying in East Coast residents New Jersey Industrial Tech and Northeastern. I agree with several outspoken media types and Cornhuskers fans who question the assignment for whatever reason the committee used. It’s bogus. In a year full of asterisks, don’t penalize a team because its league went to extremes to avoid a pandemic.
The move is especially glaring when you examine the road for the other two Big 10 schools in the field. The second-place Wolverines landed a No. 3 seed in the South Bend Regional. They match up with No. 2 seed UConn and the host Fighting Irish open with Central Michigan. Not exactly baseball heavyweights there, and if Nebraska didn’t get to host a regional, why wouldn’t their regular-season conference title land them with a lesser host such as Notre Dame as opposed to Arkansas?
The same could be said for Maryland in the Greenville Regional. The Terps, who finished third in the Big 10, are the No. 3 seed in the regional and play No. 2 seed Charlotte in the first round. Host East Carolina plays Norfolk State. At least one Nebraska media member thinks both the Wolverines and Terps have an easier road to Omaha than Nebraska. I absolutely agree.
But as bad and shameful as it is to send Nebraska to Fayetteville, it is bad or worse for Arkansas. My 9-year-old son Luke is a budding baseball player and major Hogs fan. I explained to him last week the bracket process and how since Arkansas would be the No. 1 overall seed, its bracket would be easier including one of the weaker teams to make the field in the No. 4 slot ala New Jersey Institute of Technology whom until Monday I had no idea fielded a baseball team let alone a Division I NCAA Tournament qualifier. But, ol’ dad missed on that theory when Nebraska popped up in the Fayetteville Regional.
I had to explain to Luke it has to be pretty rare for a team of Arkansas’ caliber to have to host another Power 5 conference champion. Another twist is Van Horn headed Nebraska before taking the Arkansas job and Cornhuskers Coach Will Bolt is one of Van Horn’s former players.
“It didn’t surprise me that we were getting Nebraska,” Van Horn said. “It did a few people because they did win the outright conference championship and a lot of times they’re not going to send the champion to such a high seed as a No. 2. I don’t know what all went into those decisions. But, I don’t know. I just see Nebraska as another quality team we’re probably going to have to play. It’s going to be good to see Will and some of the guys, but I didn’t get all emotional on one side or disbelief on the other. Nothing surprises me now.”
Is Nebraska an SEC-caliber team? Probably not in the upper echelon, but the Cornhuskers do have enough talent to make them competitive in the SEC and in Fayetteville this weekend. After all, in baseball anything can happen and beating Arkansas twice in Fayetteville isn’t out of the realm of possibility when you consider how competitive the team has been as well as how Bolt has drawn comparisons from his old coach.
The Cornhuskers boast one of the more interesting players in the country in junior Spencer Schwellenbach. He’s the Nebraska starting shortstop and is hitting .289 with a team-leading 35 RBI. However, he is the most dangerous on the mound where he serves as the Cornhuskers’ closer. He has a team-leading nine saves while boasting a sparkling .071 ERA and a 2-1 record. Imagine if he and Arkansas bullpen star Kevin Kopps are locking horns in a close game with a trip to the Super Regionals on the line?
Junior Cade Povich is the Huskers’ ace with a 6-2 record. At the plate, senior center fielder Jaxon Hallmark is the team’s most dangerous hitter with a .341 average and eight home runs to his credit. Freshman first baseman Max Anderson is hitting .337 with seven homers and 37 RBI. Senior catcher/infielder Luke Roskam is hitting .308 with eight home runs, so the Huskers have some fire power as well.
Both sides have a legitimate beef with the selection committee and one team is going to be upset and wonder what might have been at the end of the weekend.