After the field of 64 was announced on Memorial Day, Michigan State baseball has now missed the NCAA tournament for the sixth consecutive year. Their last appearance came in 2012 when they finished with a 37-23 mark and a semifinal showing in the Big Ten tournament. Two days after being ousted by Indiana, the Spartans heard their name on Selection Monday.
Since then, it’s been a rocky stretch for MSU. They’ve missed a couple Big Ten tournaments and have had just one realistic shot to make the national tournament – the 2016 season. In ’16, they began the season 14-1 and looked poised to earn an at-large bid had they kept up their winning ways. They finished 36-20, but their strength of schedule – or lack thereof – came back to haunt them. The committee determined they didn’t have enough quality wins. This paired with a down year for the Big Ten, lacking competitive teams. Other than this instance, MSU hasn’t been in postseason contention.
There are two major things I’ve noticed between perennial national championship contenders and consistent national tournament entries. These two things take years and the logistics are far difficult than they appear, but they’re necessary for a program who wants to get serious. These are program-changing variables that don’t include the obvious things like just winning. Here’s two major ways MSU can build a program familiar with the national stage.
Build a reputation
Believe it or not, reputation has a lot to do with college sports when determining a postseason field. The NCAA basketball committee usually tends to favor the ACC because they’re a strong conference, have performed well in tournaments, etc. In baseball, the SEC gets that treatment. There’s a number of teams who have favored from that throughout the years. MSU – really, the Big Ten – lacks that reputation. The league strength of schedule is never there. No Big Ten teams ever get the benefit of the doubt like teams in the South or on the West Coast do.
Some teams in the Midwest have taken it upon themselves to fix that notion. Teams like Kent State and Indiana have stood out among the rest. It’s possible. It takes consistency and an effort to establish yourself as a reputable baseball program. It takes money, recruiting and of course, it takes winning.
Once these are put as a priority, the nation takes notice. A great example this year is South Carolina. Yes, they’re in the SEC, but many rode them off as a team that didn’t have much of a shot to make the tournament. After coaching change, they marked it as a ‘down year’ for them. They made the tournament. How? They built a reputation. They’ve won national championships. And by no means am I saying you must win a national championship to gain respect, but you sure have to make winning priority No. 1. It also helped that Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner is the head of the selection committee – like when Mark Hollis was the head of the committee for MSU basketball in 2017. Without the ‘Spartans’ label on them, who knows where that team would’ve ended up.
The staff needs to take a hard look at themselves and figure out where to take this program. They need to figure out what they have to do to make MSU a landmark program and one that’ll compete for a Big Ten championship every year along with making a name on the national stage.
Schedule quality opponents
The Eastern and Western Michigans of the world are just not cutting it for midweek games. I get it, you must play directional schools. There are NCAA rules and regulations on traveling, missing classes and all that stuff. Those schools are close and convenient, but they’re not teams/wins that’ll get you into the postseason. The games at Comerica Park are a great experience for these young men, but something tells me they’d rather play through late May and into June in nationals.
There are plenty of solid programs close enough where traveling won’t be a heavy burden. Wright State (Horizon League champs) and Kent State (MAC champs) are less than four hours from campus. Indiana State and Cincinnati are hovering around four and a half hours away. To get quality wins and establish yourself as a program that’s seeking great competition, there’s risk and some travel involved. It’s also important to open yourself to tough competition and show the committee you’re doing all you can to improve your resume. Things like this get noticed.
Lastly, drop Furman. MSU plays Furman nearly every year, and I’m sure the two programs have a great relationship, but it does nothing – especially if the Spartans lose like they did this year. If you’re going to lose, go face a top-25 program in a tougher spring-break tournament.
Sometimes winning isn’t the most important thing when building a program. It’s changing the state of mind. It’s telling the men in the program that complacency and mediocrity isn’t acceptable. The right mental state and effort to build a top-tier program builds that reputation. The college baseball world is a small one, and when a program makes an effort to set themselves above the rest, people take notice. With that, people will take notice if you try to fly by with doing just enough to get by. By trying to win a few games and beating up on directional schools – college baseball fans and certainly the committee won’t like that.
Traveling and putting your squad through a rigorous and challenging schedule builds something special – take a look at Tom Izzo’s non-conference scheduling year in and year out. If MSU chooses to make baseball a priority, they can quickly change the outlook of the program and make some noise in the Big Ten, but until then, it’s going to take serious revamping.