Nick Mingione could see it coming.
He believed Kentucky would make the NCAA baseball tournament field. “We all make out our brackets,” he said with a grin. “I did. I had us in…”
But as he and his players watched the selections show on ESPN, he saw the top 29 teams in the RPI field announced. And then 31… 32… 33. No number 30.
That was Kentucky. And after LSU was announced as the last SEC team, that’s when he knew the roller coaster ride of a season was officially over.
“We did some amazing things,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’re not playing any more.”
Amazing things. Even after last year’s regional championship team said goodbye to all but one of their starting infielders (including Evan White, one of the best defensive first basemen in the history of college baseball) as well as their starting centerfielder, the Wildcats exploded out of the gates this season, seeming to pick up where they left off.
They swept a series against top-notch non-SEC opponents in Houston, making Minute Maid Park their own, personal playground.
They won a series with then-third ranked Texas Tech, a weekend that signaled to the college baseball-conscious pockets of the nation that the UK team that finished sixth last year, two wins shy of the College World Series, is playing as though it has unfinished business.
They took a road series at nationally ranked Georgia by coming back to win two gritty, late-inning affairs.
There’s more. Suffice it to say, their resume’ is sparkling. Their SEC record, unfortunately, is not. That’s why they’re on the outside, looking in at 10 other conference teams that made the dance.
“We went 13-17,” Mingione said. “That’s a fact. And we lost our tournament game, so we were 13-18. That was one of the main reasons, if not THE main reason.”
There’s been backlash among the Big Blue Nation, to be sure. Fans flocked to social media to gnash their digital teeth at the people responsible. Mingione says, stand down.
“The NCAA committee has a tough job” he said. “I think they’ve done in their eyes the best they can possibly do.”
The baseball selections committee is chaired by South Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner who, in his coaching days, led the Gamecocks to back-to-back national championships.
“That guy understands our league,” Mingione said. “The committee is in good hands with Ray. Their job is hard. They don’t deserve any bad or negative feedback they’re getting.”
It was Tanner, under cross-examination, who admitted that the Wildcats’ less-than-stellar conference worksheet was the ultimate arbiter, saying that among the “metrics” available to the committee this year, intra-conference play carried what, in this instance, was the determining weight.
And that’s what makes it so maddening.
UK basketball fans know this drill. It’s rare that their team is sidelined in March but on more than one occasion, they’ve howled at seeding and geographical placement. And when they press for answers, they never seem to know what they’re going to hear.
In one way it’s apples and watermelons, comparing baseball to basketball. But when you think about it, they should share the same template when it comes to selecting and seeding a tournament field.
Just how vital IS intra-conference play? Clearly, 13-17 pushes the limits on what is acceptable. But how often have we seen mediocre basketball teams with sub-.500 conference marks make the basketball show because of glittering wins in December?
Non-conference wins SHOULD count, no matter when they’re played. But should they have equal weight when compared to league games? Accepting teams with sub-.500 conference records would seem to indicate an understanding that they play in a brutally competitive league – like, say, SEC baseball.
And just how vital are non-conference games? When SEC basketball coaches bitterly complained about being left out at tournament time, they were told, explicitly: Schedule better. It matters.
So they did. And the league’s basketball reputation is slowly climbing again, which makes conference games that much more valuable when it’s time to calculate the RPI.
“Metrics” seem to be a fluid concept, changing both in rank and value every season. But one thing that doesn’t change is the eyeball test and it was easy to see, Kentucky struggled down the stretch. Much of that was because of injuries.
Slugging designated hitter T.J. Collett was the first to go down. When he was sidelined with a leg injury he was among the nation’s leaders in home runs. His absence robbed Mingione and his staff of valuable options in their batting order. Kentucky’s potent offense, which led the SEC in most categories much of the year, began to stagnate.
And then pitchers began to fade away. Lefthanded Saturday starter Zack Thompson missed seven starts. And by the time he got healthy, no less than five other front-line starters or relievers came up sore. Pitching coach Jimmy Belanger was left with a staff held together by spit and baling wire.
And still, according to Mingione, all but Collett would have been healthy enough to play in the NCAA tourney. But now they’ll have to settle for watching it on TV – if they can stand it.
They sat in stunned silence Monday as they watched the selection show together. Then came the tearful good-byes, as seniors and a few juniors wrestled with the emotional punch to the gut – they had played their last game together as teammates. It was tough on their coach, too.
“I’m sad, I’m disappointed and really, more importantly, I’m hurting,” he said.
Yes, there’s a new stadium, literally, on the horizon. And a lot of good recruits on the way. But these Wildcats, the ones who spent the first part of the season in the top 10, only to be left out of the field of 64? They figured they had more baseball left to play.