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What factors kept BYU baseball out of NCAA Tournament?; Littlewood evaluates season, looks ahead to next year

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FILE: BYU baseball coach Mike Littlewood coaches during a baseball game against San Francisco at Miller Park in Provo, on Thursday, May 9, 2019.

FILE: BYU baseball coach Mike Littlewood coaches during a baseball game against San Francisco at Miller Park in Provo, on Thursday, May 9, 2019.

PROVO — A 36-win season, an RPI of 46 and the first outright regular-season conference championship in 30 years weren’t enough to propel the BYU baseball team into the 64-team NCAA Tournament.

The Cougars, who made an early exit in the West Coast Conference Tournament last weekend with a pair of punchless performances resulting in two tough losses, put their fate in the hands of the selection committee.

Heading into the NCAA Selection Show, BYU knew the odds of getting in as an at-large were not in its favor. When the brackets were revealed Monday morning, the Cougars learned that they had been shut out of the NCAA Regionals.

“I didn’t have a great feeling about it, going into it; there’s a lot of reasons to keep BYU out,” said coach Mike Littlewood, the WCC Coach of the Year. “Obviously, there’s disappointment. The camaraderie showed — a lot of guys crying in the team room. A lot of those guys won’t see each other ever again. It’s always bittersweet to have guys go on to bigger and better things, but they’re leaving your program. If there was one word to describe it, it was disappointment.”

After posting a lackluster 22-28 record season a year ago, the Cougars rebounded by recording seven victories against Power Five opponents — the most in program history — beating Northwestern and Washington twice, Ohio State, Oregon and Utah.

I didn’t have a great feeling about it, going into it; there’s a lot of reasons to keep BYU out. Obviously, there’s disappointment. The camaraderie showed — a lot of guys crying in the team room. A lot of those guys won’t see each other ever again. It’s always bittersweet to have guys go on to bigger and better things, but they’re leaving your program. If there was one word to describe it, it was disappointment. – BYU head coach Mike Littlewood

Before the conference tournament, Littlewood said his team needed to advance to the WCC title game to feel comfortable about an at-large bid. But BYU was the first team eliminated from the WCC Tournament.

The last four teams to receive invitations to the NCAA Tournament, according to ESPN, were No. 39 Michigan, No. 44 Duke, No. 50 Florida State and No. 59 TCU. The first four out were No. 31 Missouri, No. 42 Houston, No. 47 Central Florida and No. 52 Texas State.

“A couple of surprise teams got in. TCU getting in was a huge surprise to a lot of people and the reasons we heard why they got in from the committee were kind of out of left field,” Littlewood said. “There are probably 10 or 12 teams that feel like they’ve earned the right to be in the tournament that didn’t get into the tournament. The bottom line is, we had our chance to finish and we ran into two hot pitchers and didn’t get it done. On the other hand, we have the seventh-highest RPI league in the country, out of more than 30, and we win our league. It makes it feel like all that’s for nothing. It’s kind of bittersweet.”

BYU does not play on Sunday, as per school policy. How much did the Sunday play issue factor into the Cougars not receiving an at-large berth?

Cougar pitcher Bo Burrup fires a pitch during the Utah vs. BYU baseball game at Smith’s Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 14, 2019.

FILE: Cougar pitcher Bo Burrup fires a pitch during the Utah vs. BYU baseball game at Smith’s Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 14, 2019.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

“Probably not a whole lot. I doubt it. If it would have come down to one or two teams, maybe,” Littlewood said. “But when the NCAA came with their next four out, we weren’t even on that, so I doubt it was even a factor.”

In the first game of the WCC Tournament, BYU faced Codie Pavia, the WCC Pitcher of the Year, and the Cougars managed only five hits and struck out 11 times. In other words, being the top seed in the tournament didn’t benefit BYU.

The format of the four-team WCC Tournament is always a topic of conversation among the league’s coaches, Littlewood said.

“I don’t think there’s a perfect way to do it. But what I would like to see them do is have six teams, give the top two seeds a bye,” he said. “Then have the top seeds play double-elimination. Have the third, fourth, fifth and six seeds play in a single-elimination for the right to play the top two seeds. At least that would give you a one-day pitching advantage that you don’t get right now.”

BYU finished the campaign with a 36-17 overall record. How will Littlewood remember this season?

BYU’s Danny Gelalich watches the ball sail over the right field fence after blasting a grand slam in the eighth inning during the Utah vs. BYU baseball game at Smith’s Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 14, 2019.

FILE: BYU’s Danny Gelalich watches the ball sail over the right field fence after blasting a grand slam in the eight inning during the Utah vs. BYU baseball game at Smith’s Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 14, 2019.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

“I read from one writer on Twitter (after the WCC Tournament) that ‘this can only be described as a colossal collapse.’ I totally don’t look at it that way,” Littlewood said. “We ran into the Pitcher of the Year. We played at such a high, consistent level all season long. We very rarely had any lulls in our season. To try to sum up in two days when we faced two pitchers that were really on their game that day isn’t fair to the guys and it minimizes what they’ve done this entire year. I was talking to (athletic director) Tom Holmoe about this and he said, ‘Banners are really hard to hang.’ To win our league outright was such a great accomplishment. In most leagues in the country, the league regular season winner gets that automatic bid. Our league has a tournament. Do I think we’re (an NCAA) Regional team? For sure we’re a Regional team. But there’s probably 75 teams that are Regional teams and only 64 can make it. We’ve just got to go back to work tomorrow recruiting and start it all over again.”

Monday, after the selection show, Littlewood addressed his team.

“I just thanked them. Nobody sees the behind-the-scenes of the blood, sweat and tears they put in from September until today with weightlifting, classes, hard practices, study hall,” he said. “I thanked the upperclassmen for their leadership, for changing the culture, for being a brotherhood and making it a joy to come to the field every day. I know that sometimes it’s not. But every single day this year has been a joy to go to the field and work with these guys, coach them and be around them.”

Next season, BYU will lose seniors Brock Hale, the WCC Player of the Year; Keaton Kringlen; Noah Hill; Brian Hsu; and Casey Jacobsen. Pitchers Jordan Wood, Bo Burrup, Riley Gates and Blake Inouye will also graduate. Plus, infielder Jackson Cluff and pitcher Justin Sterner could be selected in the upcoming Major League Baseball draft.

FILE: BYU's Brock Hale snags a fly ball to get UVU's Drew Sims out in right field at Miller Park in Provo on Tuesday, March 5, 2019.

FILE: BYU’s Brock Hale snags a fly ball to get UVU’s Drew Sims out in right field at Miller Park in Provo on Tuesday, March 5, 2019.

Littlewood is optimistic about next season.

“We have a good core of our pitching staff back and we have new guys coming in, all our 2019 signees,” he said. “There are too many to list because I’ll leave someone out, but we’re so excited by those guys and their talent level. If they can buy into what we’re doing and have the older guys lead, things will be fun with BYU baseball.”

Littlewood likes the upward trajectory of the program since he took the helm seven years ago. Over the past seven years, BYU has advanced to the WCC Tournament five times. Only Gonzaga has more league tournament appearances during that stretch.

“Nobody has higher expectations than myself and my coaching staff. It’s difficult because you find yourself chasing (an NCAA) Regional every year. In baseball, it’s so difficult. In our league, there’s one way to do it and that’s to win the tournament. A tournament is such a crapshoot," Littlewood said. "We can’t put all of our identity on getting to a Regional because it’s so difficult. Of course, that’s our goal every year. Putting a Regional-type team on the field every year is a more attainable identity for us. I think we’ve done that. You’re going to have up-and-down years. We’re not going to win our league every single year. There’s a lot of great teams in our league. The bar’s definitely been set. The expectations are different and we’re going to try to meet those expectations every single year.”