Mercer barely misses NCAA baseball tournament

mlough@macon.comMay 26, 2014 

Mercer first baseman Nick Backlund flips the ball back to the bag during the Bears’ loss to East Tennessee State on Thursday.

ROMEO T GUZMAN — Romeo T Guzman/Sideline Sports

The darkness of the room ended up fitting.

Mercer’s baseball team crowded in its meeting room in the University Center on Monday, having scrambled from the President’s Dining Room because of a technological glitch.

And as the Bears watched, the room lit only by cell phones and the ESPNU broadcast of the NCAA baseball tournament selection show, the nails kept coming.

With each at-large selection of a team with an RPI of 35 or lower came a nail in Mercer’s coffin.

Some nails were greeted more harshly than others. And when Old Dominion’s name showed up, the hammer came down on the final nail, and summer had started.

“We had the world in our hands,” senior first baseman and designated hitter Nick Backlund said. “And we screwed it up.”

That Mercer was the first team out this season was ironic, since the Bears, with a stronger resume, were the final at-large team selected a year ago.

Such is the unpredictability of NCAA tournament selections.

“You look at last year, and holy crap, we were the last team in,” Backlund said. “That blew my mind. And that’s one of the things worried us a lot this weekend.”

Mercer won the A-Sun regular season title a year ago but went 1-2 in the tournament, still entering the selection day with a quality RPI of 28.

This time, the Bears finished second in the regular season and were gone from the conference tournament in two games, watching their RPI freefall from 27 to 29 to 46 in about a week.

The players reacted mostly to Clemson (RPI 49) and Cal State Fullerton (54) getting in, although Cal Irvine (44) also inspired consternation.

All three had top-65 strength of schedules and stronger finishes. Mercer’s strength of schedule was 151, and its record in the final 10 games was 4-6.

The only team ahead of Mercer (38-17) to not get in was No. 40 West Virginia, which was one of the first four out, still considered despite a 28-26 record overall, 9-14 in conference and 6-19 against top 50 teams.

Losses by tournament top seeds — and higher RPI holders — Sam Houston State in the Southland and Liberty in the Big South turned them into two-bid conferences, consuming two at-large spots.

Mercer simply played its way out by losing a home series to Stetson and road series to East Tennessee State, whose RPIs were around 200 when the games began.

And then Mercer lost to the Hatters and Bucs — with improved RPIs after the series wins — in the A-Sun tournament.

The 4-6 conference finish against weak RPI teams — and 12-12 record against teams in Warren Nolan’s 101-200 RPI list — appeared to overshadow wins against national No. 2 seed Florida and ACC tournament champion Georgia Tech.

While head coach Craig Gibson will debate those teams chosen over his and noted a lack of respect for mid-majors in the process, he mostly echoed Backlund’s analysis.

“We just didn’t take care (of business),” Gibson said. “It was in our own hands that last few weeks, and we didn’t play well. I don’t know if we didn’t play well. I’ve said it over and over again: Other teams played well against us.

“Two weeks ago, we were probably one of the best 64 teams. Maybe the last two weeks, we weren’t one of the best 64 teams. But over the course of probably 17 weeks, we probably were one of the best 64 teams.”

Among those joining Mercer with beefs: Central Florida (48 RPI, 47th in strength of schedule, 10-12 vs. top 100) and UC Santa Barbara (50 RPI, No. 5 conference RPI, 11-11 vs. top 100).

Clemson was the only one of the reported “last four in” with a lower RPI than Mercer.

Last year, four teams with sub-50 RPIs got invites compared to one this year.

Upon the final name not Mercer appearing on the screen, the Bears headed to turn in equipment and having final meetings with Gibson.

Watching this weekend’s action won’t be easy.

“We’ll cross that bridge when it comes to it,” said Austin Barrett, a fifth-year senior. “I would like to watch it, but I don’t know. It’s tough. I don’t know, to be honest with you.”

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