Heading into Monday's NCAA Tournament Selection Show on national television, the consensus was that Indiana baseball's at-large bid was protected. Really, the question was where the Hoosiers would travel to play in the regionals. Terre Haute? Nashville? Lexington?
As Indiana’s name popped up on the TV, synchronous uproar amongst players filled Assembly Hall’s Spirit of ‘76 Club, followed by 15 seconds of sustained claps. The near-guarantee of postseason selection didn't numb the team's reaction at their watch party.
Over 30 players on Indiana's 39-player roster have never reached an NCAA Tournament, such as redshirt junior Bobby Whalen, who said Monday that he and his teammates had sat in their living room attempting to predict where they might play. The committee placed Indiana in the Lexington Regional Monday, hosted by the No. 12 national-seed University of Kentucky.
Although enthusiastic, Indiana's reaction wasn't as rowdy compared to other teams shown on TV. The Hoosiers remained seated, while other teams sprung from their chairs. You might’ve been unable to tell the Hoosiers were back in the postseason for the first time since 2019.
Monday’s business-as-usual reaction may have been because of the impending at-large bid. Nevertheless, for Indiana to even have played the regional-location guessing game –– following the past two postseason-absent seasons –– spotlights the program’s turnaround.
Indiana went 27-32 in 2022. After suffering their fourth sweep to end the regular-season, the Hoosiers limped into the last spot in the Big Ten Tournament, tied for eighth in the league at 10-14. It was win-the-whole-tournament or bust to contend for the NCAA Tournament.
The Hoosiers are 41-18 in 2023, even after losing four of their past six games. That incorporates going 1-2 at this year’s Big Ten Tournament. Yet, the team didn’t need to fear about their NCAA Tournament standing. Indiana was swept once this season, steeply climbing to second place in the Big Ten at 16-8, finishing just one game behind Maryland.
In the program's first 40-win season since 2018, the Hoosiers are now back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2019. The Lexington Regional will be formidable. According to Warren Nolan's RPI, Kentucky has the strongest strength of schedule in the nation. The Wildcats are also 25-6 at home. Kentucky run-ruled Indiana 12-2 in seven innings when the two teams met in March in Lexington, playing in 40-degree weather.
"Forty degrees is generous,” Whalen said Monday. “We know how their turf plays and we know the facility. For the younger guys, it's going to be a big experience for them. That's something that can help us older guys help them calm down as we've been here before.”
Kentucky is the No. 1-seed, West Virginia University is the No. 2, Indiana is the No. 3, and Ball State University is the No. 4-seed. Indiana and West Virginia play at 7 p.m. on Friday at Kentucky Proud Park. It’ll be the first contest for both teams in the double-elimination format.
West Virginia has the best winning percentage on the road within the four-team regional, though Friday’s game can be considered neutral-site. The Mountaineers are also 24-9 in nonconference, showcasing an impressive early-season 8-6 road victory at Maryland.
Within Big 12 Conference play, West Virginia shared the program’s first-ever baseball regular-season title with the University of Texas and regional host Oklahoma State University. The Mountaineers, however, have lost their past five consecutive games: swept by Texas to close the regular season, then losing their first two games in the Big 12 Tournament.
No. 4-seed Ball State may have slim chances to advance out of the regional, but only lost by four runs combined in two games this season with Indiana. The Cardinals finished second in the Mid-American Conference. Ball State will play No. 1-seed Kentucky at noon on Friday.
Indiana head coach Jeff Mercer said Monday he'd imagine sophomore ace Luke Sinnard will start the team’s first regional game against West Virginia. The right-hander revealed Monday he didn’t travel to Lexington for the team’s March midweek game at Kentucky. Sinnard’s 109 strikeouts this year are one shy from breaking Indiana’s single-season strikeout record.
“I'm not going to look at the other team and be scared,” Sinnard said Monday. “I'm just gonna do what I do well. It's been working the whole season. I love big crowds. It just gets my adrenaline going, makes me even more focused, makes me want to win even more.”
Mercer disclosed Monday that sophomore reliever Ryan Kraft’s status is “really good.” Kraft didn’t pitch in the Big Ten Tournament following forearm tightness in the final regular-season series. If Kraft remains healthy, that resupplies bullpen depth in non-stop regional play. Mercer said freshman right-hander Brayden Risedorph is “lightly penciled” to start the second game.
Sinnard, Kraft and Risedorph haven’t played in an NCAA Tournament. Neither has Indiana’s latest starting lineup May 26 against Michigan in the conference tournament. The Lexington Regional will be formidable: Kentucky’s best strength of schedule, West Virginia’s road success, while Ball State’s lineup kept the score close with Indiana twice this year.
If the Hoosiers are bounced from the regional, that shouldn't detract from the program's winning U-turn this season. But the regional is the chance to uphold that turnaround when playing the best of teams –– especially if the majority of Indiana's roster is inexperienced in postseason play –– but still can advance to the program's first Super Regionals since 2013.