Published Friday, February 7, 2014 at 10:27 am / Updated at 11:01 pm
Big Ten tournament expands to eight teams

The Big Ten’s revamped baseball tournament will make its debut in Omaha this May, and conference officials will be monitoring how it fares as they consider future sites for the event.

The league announced Friday that the double-elimination tournament will expand its field from six to eight teams in 2014 as recommended by the conference coaches and approved by administrators last fall.

It means one extra day of Big Ten baseball at TD Ameritrade Park, and as many as four more games for a conference that’s trying to spark increased interest in the sport within its fan bases.

The league tournament, set for May 21 to 25, is only scheduled to be played in Omaha this one time — the Minnesota Twins’ Target Field will host the event for the second time in three years in 2015.

But plans for 2016 and beyond haven’t been formulated yet. Big Ten Deputy Commissioner Brad Traviolia indicated that a successful trial run in Omaha could lead to a more extensive partnership going forward.

“We’ll have the Omaha experience and see how it pans out,” Traviolia said. “Everyone wants to see it for real. … Omaha has that mystique and the track record. I think this year, we’ll have our questions answered.”

The conference tournament didn’t draw well in Minneapolis last year, perhaps lost in the shuffle on Memorial Day weekend and hampered a bit by chilly weather and overcast skies. Only 6,444 people paid to see 11 total games.

But the experience of playing in Target Field was appealing to players and coaches, who were complimentary of Twins staff and stadium accommodations during the event last May. Securing a site to provide reasonable preparation time was important to league officials, as well, Traviolia said.

So the tournament’s back in Minneapolis in 2015.

Big Ten officials think the MLB connection helps add legitimacy to the league’s product, too — which is critical at a time when the conference appears to be on the upswing.

Indiana reached the College World Series last summer, the first Big Ten team since 1984. Purdue hosted its first regional two years ago. The conference has produced at least two NCAA tournament teams in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2001.

Excitement is building around Nebraska’s program, too.

That buzz will certainly help draw crowds in May, assuming NU’s in the tournament. The Huskers helped to attract more than 6,000 on average in five games played at TD Ameritrade Park last season.

And Nebraska will have an even better chance of earning a tournament spot now that eight teams will qualify.

The expansion of the tournament field was inevitable, really. It had been a six-team event since 2002, with the top two seeds receiving first-round byes.
But Maryland and Rutgers are joining the league in 2015. And the fact that Michigan State missed out on an NCAA regional last season because it failed to make the Big Ten tournament only added urgency to the process. The Spartans, with a 33-17 record and a No. 36 RPI, were the first team left out of the NCAA’s 64-team field last year, the selection committee said.

“The coaches had a specific recommendation, and through their experiences they settled on a specific format,” Traviolia said.

The new bracket features two, four-team divisions — similar to the structure of the College World Series. The two teams that emerge from those two double-elimination pods will face off in a winner-take-all championship May 25.

Ticket information is expected to be announced later this month, according to Butch Hug, Nebraska associate athletic director for facilities and events. He said the TV schedule and game times are still being crafted.

There is a possibility, Hug said, to create flexibility within the bracket, too — like positioning Nebraska’s games in prime time to make it easier for local fans to attend. Last year’s tournament host, Minnesota, had just one of its four games begin after 4 p.m.

Nothing’s finalized yet, though.

“I think we’ve identified all the pieces of the puzzle,” Hug said. “Now we’re just putting it all together.”

Contact the writer: Jon Nyatawa    |   402-473-9585    |  

Jon Nyatawa has covered local sports, primarily Nebraska football and baseball, for The Omaha World-Herald since 2008.



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