Passion poured from Rick Heller Sunday afternoon as the Iowa baseball coach delivered one final plea to the NCAA Tournament committee ahead of Selection Monday. Part of Heller’s frustration was having to make the same argument yet again. The rest of it was knowing these words likely wouldn’t make a difference.
A baseball veteran who’s watched the committee leave several talented Iowa teams on the regional sidelines, Heller knew this Selection Monday was probably going to be an unfavorable one once the Hawkeyes fell Sunday in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals. And that’s exactly what it was.
Monday’s reveal saw the Hawkeyes come up a little short of the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight season that regionals have been played. Add this painful miss to the ones suffered in 2018, 2019 and 2021 — all seasons in which Iowa spent a lot of the year included in tourney projections before falling out of them down the stretch.
It’s clear Heller’s issues begin primarily with the RPI, the magical metric that seems to be valued more in shaping college baseball’s postseason than any other sport. The Hawkeyes entered Monday with a 60 RPI, which is pretty consistently outside the at-large range even for a Big Ten team. Iowa’s circuit trek through the Big Ten Tournament — a bad loss to start, followed by three wins before Falling Sunday to Michigan — actually dropped the Hawkeyes’ RPI two spots from where it began last week.
“Why does everybody have to go right to the RPI?” Heller said. “The RPI is flawed. It’s flawed for the teams in the north, the Midwest and the West Coast. It’s not a fair system.”
The RPI also did Iowa no favors in morphing talks of a treacherous schedule into on-paper reality. The Hawkeyes finished with just a 3-3 record against top-50 RPI opponents — three of those Big Ten games, three of those non-conference affairs — and none of those came in the season’s final month. There were many more RPI landmines than improvement chances.
In another year, Iowa’s non-conference schedule had plenty of robust potential. But a slew of Iowa foes that can have great seasons at any point didn’t in 2022. Atop that list are UC Irvine (85 RPI), Pepperdine (133 RPI) and San Diego State (218 RPI). At the end of the day, a split with Texas Tech (45 RPI) was Iowa’s only non-conference accomplishment that really popped. Victories over conference tournament champions Central Michigan (68 RPI) and Air Force (107 RPI) looked better on the field than in the metrics.
The same can be said for much of the Hawkeyes’ league success. A 17-7 mark and third-place finish sounds like it would carry ample weight, but the Big Ten struggled to make much look good on paper outside of Maryland this season. Eight of the 13 teams finished outside the RPI top 100, with seven of them resting outside the top 120.
Even as Iowa closed the regular season with six consecutive winning weekends, five of those — Minnesota (248 RPI), Nebraska (167 RPI), Purdue (139 RPI), Michigan State (172 RPI) and Indiana (104 RPI) — offered very little resume enhancement. A late-April series win at regional hopeful Rutgers (42 RPI) wasn’t enough to offset the rest. The Scarlet Knights themselves got left out as an an at-large after Michigan swiped the Big Ten’s automatic bid on Sunday.
“The RPI doesn’t tell you one thing about how good a team is,” Heller said. “That’s the problem. It doesn’t tell you anything about how good the team is. All it tells you is how the system is manipulated, and the system is wrong. It’s broken. It’s a broken system. We should’ve been in three regionals.
“But this one is a no-brainer.”
What does stand this Iowa season apart from the previous three is there was no late weekend tumble. In 2018, 2019 and 2021, Iowa dropped a series in the final two regular-season weekends to a team that didn’t finish over .500 that year — and it was easy to point to that as why the Hawkeyes were left out. This season, there was a costly midweek loss to Illinois State (188 RPI) on May 3 — which finished as the Hawkeyes’ worst RPI defeat — but stumbles like that are inevitable in a long baseball season. It’s hard to stomach such a slim margin for error in a sport that’s often a magnet for the absurd.
Any explanation from the selection committee will do little to ease the pain in Iowa City. Another Hawkeyes baseball season ends with more frustration than satisfaction.
“Everything that anybody out there said we should do,” Heller said, “we did.”
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.