Faced with a must-win series against Top 25-ranked UC Irvine last weekend, Iowa baseball did what they've been doing week after week of late: just win (the series), baby. Iowa picked up up solid wins on Friday and Saturday to take the first two games against the Anteaters, before the pitching melted on Sunday and Iowa was blown out in the series finale. Still, Iowa managed to pick up two crucial wins over a strong program, which has planted them firmly into NCAA Tournament conversation.
So let's dust off our bracketology hats and take a look at Iowa baseball's quest to make the NCAA Tournament for the third time in the past five seasons.
D1Baseball has been fairly bullish on Iowa of late and that hasn't changed this week. Iowa cracked their Top 25 ranking for the first time all season, entering at #24. Iowa also made their field of 64 for the NCAA Tournament, earning a potential #3 seed in the Greenville regional. The other teams in that regional: #1 seed East Carolina (the #9 overall national seed), #2 seed NC State, and #3 seed Campbell (the Fightin' Camels!). Geographically speaking, Iowa would be the outlier in that regional by far -- ECU, NC State, and Campbell are all in North Carolina. D1Baseball has NC State has NC State as the #19 team in their Top 25, so they would likely be considered one of the better #2 seeds in a region as well.
Baseball America has been a little slower to warm to the Hawkeyes' cause and they're still not putting Iowa in their Top 25. But they are in BA's projected field of 64, and not as one of the Last Four In, either. Iowa is a #3 seed in the Waco regional in their bracket. The other teams in that regional #1 seed Baylor, #2 seed Missouri, and #4 seed Stony Brook (the Fightin' Seawolves!). Per BA, Baylor is the #12 overall national seed, and ranked #15 in their Top 25. Missouri is #20 in that same Top 25.
Baseball America also wrote a nice piece breaking down how Iowa's pursuit of a NCAA Tournament berth has happened. (Give it a read!) The wins over UC Irvine moved Iowa's RPI from 60 to 56 (it's now at 58), but the real value in those wins was in giving Iowa more quality wins for their resume. Iowa has series wins over four projected NCAA Tournament teams: Oklahoma State (who's also a national seed, per D1Baseball and BA), Illinois (who Iowa swept), Nebraska, and UC Irvine. Those are some mighty good wins on Iowa's docket, which helps negate some of the damage done by their mediocre RPI and the bad losses they took early in the season to Hawaii and Evansville. It doesn't hurt to have the best winning percentage vs Top 25 RPI teams:
— (@ScottKoops) May 9, 2019
The BA article also includes a note of caution, though, by noting how similar Iowa's position this year is to their position at the end of last season.
Exactly 12 months ago, Iowa was coming off a big series win against Oklahoma State. At that point, the Hawkeyes were inside the top 50 in RPI and likely felt pretty good about their chances to play postseason baseball for the second consecutive season. But that hope never materialized, as they dropped a series to Northwestern the following weekend and their at-large hopes were, for all intents and purposes, shot.
Like this year, a year ago Iowa entered the final weeks of the season with a chance to secure its at-large fate. Instead, it lost two of three to a bad Northwestern team, crippling its at-large bid. That left Iowa needing to engineer another magical Big Ten Tournament run to make the NCAA Tournament; unfortunately, after the magic of 2016 and 2017, when Iowa made it to the Big Ten Tournament championship game both years (losing narrowly in 2016 and winning in 2017), Iowa's magic ran out last year and they went 0-2 in the tourney, ending their season. The Big Ten Tournament will still be there as an option for Iowa this year -- but we'd really prefer it if Iowa didn't need to win it again to ensure a trip back to the NCAA Tournament.
This year Iowa closes the season with a home series this weekend against Michigan State (17-30 overall, 180 RPI), a midweek road game at Western Illinois (18-27 overall, 241 RPI), and a final road series at Maryland (23-25, 81 RPI). Those teams aren't quite the RPI poison pills that Northwestern was last year (as BA notes), but Iowa still can ill afford to lose too many of its remaining games. If they sweep MSU this weekend, beat WIU in midweek play, and then take two of three from Maryland, their at-large standing should be very solid, regardless of their Big Ten Tournament results. Throw another loss or two in there, though, and things would certainly get dicier.
Iowa's run of six straight weekend series wins and impressive wins over the likes of Illinois, Nebraska, and UC Irvine (on top of the early season win over Oklahoma State) has improved their NCAA Tournament odds considerably. Back in March, I thought they were looking at another "Big Ten Tournament or bust"-type situation. They've righted the ship since then, though, and put themselves right back into the thing of the mock bracket world. Now they need to finish the job over the next few weeks.