A few thoughts on the Big Ten Tournament at Target Field this weekend...
1) 8 is Enough
Until recently (2014, to be precise), the Big Ten Tournament invited just six teams, which is an awkward number from a bracketing perspective. The Big Ten Tournament moved to 8 teams in 2014, a move that makes even more sense with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers this season. The addition of those two east coast teams brings the Big Ten's baseball-playing contingent up to 13 teams (get your act together, Wisconsin). A 6-team playoff would let in fewer than half of the conference's teams, while an 8-team playoff lets in a bit more than half of the conference's teams. The issue of how many teams to let into a playoff is always divisive -- let in too many teams and making the playoffs ceases to be much of an accomplishment (and increases the risk of an "undeserving" team winning the playoff) , let in too few teams and sap the drama from the event.
Eight teams seems like a good number for the Big Ten, though -- it's a small enough number to keep out the relative riff-raff and ensure that the teams that do qualify for the tournament are pretty solid. This year's field included one team with a losing record -- Nebraska at 9-14 in league play -- but that may not be common. Last year's field included no teams with losing records. Eight teams lends itself to easy bracketing, too, and avoids the use of byes which can tilt the field too far in favor of the top-finishing teams (though Iowa would have been one of the bye recipients in a six-team field this year, so maybe that wouldn't have been so bad...).
2) The Schedule is Brutal... But Probably Unavoidable
The schedule for the Big Ten Tournament is pretty rough -- games started at 9 AM on Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday (and Sunday, too, but that was a weather-related decision) and (on Wednesday and Thursday) didn't conclude until the wee hours of the evening. On Thursday, Iowa and Michigan got underway at 5 PM and played a nearly 4-hour game -- and there was still another game to be played after them. The first pitch in the Maryland-Illinois game that night wasn't until almost 10 PM local time.
At the same time, though, there probably isn't a lot that can be done to avoid that sort of scheduling craziness. A nine-inning baseball game can take a long time to play -- there's no way around that. It takes time to get the field in proper condition for another game, too, and teams need time to warm up. Combine that with the need to squeeze in four games per day in some situations and, well, there's no good way to solve those logistical hurdles -- unless you want to start playing games at 7-8 AM in the morning...
3) Target Field is Great, But...
As a Twin Cities resident and Twins fan, I love Target Field. It's a beautiful new(ish) stadium, perfect for baseball. It has great sight lines, plenty of seating, good concessions, and nice amenities. It's a quantum leap forward from watching baseball in the antiseptic hellhole that was the Metrodome. It's also really damn big -- far too big for an event with limited interest like Big Ten baseball. Most games drew around 1000 fans... in a facility that seats around 40,000. That left acres of empty seats, which was awkward at best and pretty embarrassing at worst. I'm sure attendance would have been better if Minnesota had been in the tournament and probably if Nebraska had a stronger team this year (they eked in as the #8 seed), since they have a large, loyal fanbase. But this is not an event that's ever likely to draw huge crowds -- certainly not the sort of crowds that would warrant a facility as big as Target Field.
It was great fun to watch Iowa play in an MLB ballpark and I'm sure the players got a thrill to be playing at a major league ballpark, but the optics of tiny crowds in a cavernous stadium just aren't good. If the Big Ten Tournament returns to the Twin Cities, I would be curious to see what the tournament would look like at CHS Field, the brand-new stadium for the St. Paul Saints, a minor league team. It seats around 7000 -- plenty big enough for the Big Ten Tournament, but not so enormous that there would be massive empty sections of seats.
Of course, I also wonder what the Big Ten's plans are in terms of host sites. The last three Big Ten Tournaments have been held in Minneapolis (2013, 2015) and Omaha (2014). They've been in great facilities (Target Field in Minneapolis, TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha), but they're really only convenient for a handful of teams. Not that Big Ten baseball is the sort of sport that engenders big traveling crowds of fans anyway, but a trip from New Jersey or Maryland or Ohio or Michigan to Omaha or MInneapolis is quite a hike. But, again, I don't know what the Big Ten's future plans are for the host sites for the tournament.
#3 seed Michigan won the 2015 Big Ten Tournament earlier today, knocking off #4 seed Maryland, 4-3. The win locked up the Big Ten's automatic berth for the NCAA Tournament -- which the Wolverines probably needed to get if they were going to make the NCAA Tournament at all. Despite a 3rd place finish in the Big Ten, Michigan entered the Big Ten Tournament with a 33-20 overall record (good, but not great) and a middling RPI (#61). They were anything but a sure thing to grab an at-large bid if they hadn't won the Big Ten Tournament. Now that point is moot. But that does make them a bit of a bid thief -- just like Texas, who turned around a lousy regular season with a Big 12 Tournament triumph.
That bid thievery doesn't figure to impact Iowa -- they still seem to be firmly within the Field of 64 as an at-large selection -- but it could hurt other Big Ten teams. Illinois is a lead pipe cinch to earn an at-large spot from the Big Ten and Iowa appears to be at the level right below them in terms of bid confidence. Indiana (RPI #34), Maryland (RPI #41), and Michigan State (RPI #51) have been popular at-large picks as well in recent mock brackets, but they aren't all going to make the cut. Indiana has a very strong RPI and ended the season on a great run, so they're probably safe. Maryland has a decent RPI and had a nice run in the Big Ten Tournament (they ended Illinois' 27-game winning streak, which should be a hell of a nice late addition to their resume). But Michigan State should probably be sweating right about now.
We'll find out tomorrow exactly how things shake out for the Big Ten in the NCAA Tournament.