By Eric Olson
The Associated Press
NORMAN — The Big Ten is measuring support for a proposal that would give baseball teams the option of playing non-conference games in the fall that would count toward determining the NCAA tournament field the following spring.
Big Ten coaches voted to continue studying the possibility, and deputy commissioner Brad Traviolia said Monday the conference is in the process of explaining the concept to coaches across the country.
Traviolia wrote in an email to The Associated Press that he couldn’t predict when, or if, the conference would submit the proposal to the NCAA legislative process.
“However,” he wrote, “we would plan to move forward once we feel we have a broad base of support.”
The Big Ten and other northern conferences for years have sought ways for their schools to gain greater access to the NCAA tournament, which has been dominated by programs from the South and West since the late 1980s.
Cold weather puts northern schools at a disadvantage when the season starts in February. Those schools must travel to the South or West to play the first month of the season, which reduces their number of possible home games.
Purdue coach Doug Schreiber came up with the idea of playing fall non-conference games that count so northern schools can eliminate one or two early-season trips and spread more home games over the fall and spring.
Schreiber said northern programs could increase revenue by scheduling games on home football weekends and reduce missed class time in February and March.
Schreiber said the reception for the proposal at the American Baseball Coaches Association meeting in January was “lukewarm” — which he found encouraging.
“When I initially brought it up a few years ago, you could hear crickets in the room,” Schreiber said. “Now the numbers are a little bit better, and I think they’ll grow when (coaches) start to understand the proposal.”
The proposal would not change the mid-February start date or the structure of conference play or NCAA regionals, super regionals and College World Series.
There is no agreement on the maximum number of fall games. Schreiber suggests teams be allowed to practice 24 times beginning in late August and then have the option to play up to 14 games from mid-September to late October. A team that plays 14 games in the fall would have a maximum of 42 to play the following spring.
Indiana coach Tracy Smith said to gain support from programs in the South and West, four to six fall games would be reasonable to start.
Home games are crucial for building a team’s RPI — the biggest factor in NCAA tournament selection — because the home team wins about 60 percent of the time, according to the NCAA.
Big Ten favorite Indiana is scheduled to play 18 home games this season while defending national champion Arizona will play 38.
Supporters acknowledge many warm-weather schools, and even some in the North, will choose not to play any fall games.
“I don’t begrudge them for not wanting to change the system,” Indiana’s Smith said. “If you can keep doing business as usual, don’t shoot it down for the schools that want access to those four to six games.”
Kent State coach Scott Stricklin said his concern is that pitchers in fall games would end up being overworked after having spent July and August on summer-league teams. Stricklin’s team, from the Mid-American Conference, in 2012 became one of just six from the North the past 10 years to make it to the College World Series.
Stricklin said he would like to play fall games that don’t count in the RPI so he can get young pitchers ready for the spring. The NCAA now allows teams to play four exhibitions in the fall that count against the 56-game limit for the calendar year and for nothing else.
Stricklin said if fall games could count in the RPI, he would consider scheduling them.
“I can’t say I’m 100 percent for it,” he said, “but I’m not going to say I’m 100 percent against it.”
North Carolina coach Mike Fox said a lot of logistics would have to be worked out and that he has difficulty envisioning a season that could be split between fall and spring.
Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin, a New Hampshire native who played at Ohio Wesleyan, said he understands the plight of the northern coaches. But he said the teams that would play games that count in the fall, and thus have fewer games remaining when the season picks up, could gain a competitive advantage because of reduced stress on pitchers in the spring.
Indiana’s Smith, in response to Corbin, said warm-weather schools already have a huge advantage because many of them are able play twice as many home games.
Smith said he knows the proposal will be hard to sell to college baseball’s power brokers in the South and West. He said it’s a step in the right direction toward a semblance of competitive balance.
Minnesota coach John Anderson last year proposed that the Big Ten and other northern conferences break away from the traditional NCAA spring season, play a full summer schedule and crown a “northern champion” each August. That idea was quickly dismissed.
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