Going into Monday’s NCAA Tournament Selection Show, no one quite knew the fate of the Illinois Baseball team’s postseason aspirations.
The only thing everyone was aware of was that the Illini were sitting right on the bubble of making the tournament.
The team got together at Billy Barooz Pub and Grill in Champaign on Monday morning to watch the Selection Show, and going in, the Illini had put together a very solid resume.
Illinois finished the season with a 33-20 overall record and a 15-9 mark in conference play. Its resume was highlighted by non-conference wins over Coastal Carolina (ranked 19th at the time), UCLA (ranked 11th at the time) and Arizona and Washington, both of who made the NCAA Tournament.
Prominent conference victories included beating Indiana (a No. 2 seed in NCAA Tournament) three out of the five times the two clubs met — none of which were at Illinois Field — and a road series win against the Michigan Wolverines, who also sat on the bubble.
The final result after all of this once the clock struck 11:30 at Billy Barooz’s? The Illini being one of the First Four Out in the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re disappointed. You play all year to get in the NCAA Tournament and have a chance to play for the National Championship,” said Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb. “There’s two sides to it. You can look at teams that got in, teams that didn’t get in.
“Do I think we were deserving? I do, but we also had opportunities throughout the year to win some games that we let slip away. So you can’t blame the committee or anybody else. You have to look at ourselves in the mirror and find a way to get better and get ourselves back in in future years.”
The potential anchor that could have kept Illinois out of the Tournament this year may lie in the middle of the season where the Illini lost six out of eight games.
Four of those losses came at home to Valparaiso on April 17, a series loss to Grand Canyon that weekend and then a midweek loss to Bradley on April 24. The Illini then went on the road and dropped a road series to the Hoosiers the following weekend.
“There was about a two and a half week stretch where we slumped a little bit and you saw our RPI dip at that point,” Hartleb said. “I thought we played much better toward the end of the year and we won some crucial series, but we also had opportunities to sweep series and we didn’t get that done.”
Despite the “slump” Illinois went through, the Illini came back strong to take the last two series of the regular season and beat Indiana twice in the Big Ten Tournament.
Outfielder Jack Yalowitz thought the wins over the Hoosiers would play much more in his team’s favor when it came to making the Tournament and was surprised to see the Hoosiers’ name called and not the Illini’s alongside.
“I think that we put together a better season than (the Hoosiers) did,” Yalowitz said. “I think we have a better resume than they do. We beat them head-to-head three out of five times, didn’t play a single game at home. We beat their ace twice. So it is what it is. Good luck to them.”
Illinois had several standout individual performances during the 2018 season, headlined by Big Ten Player of the Year Bren Spillane. The first baseman racked up numerous accolades throughout the year thanks to a .389 batting average along with 23 home runs — three shy of the most by an Illini in a single season — and 60 RBI.
Hartleb said Spillane’s performance was one of the best season’s he has ever seen out of someone to come through the program.
“It was awesome to see Bren (Spillane) grow. He’s been in our program for three years and he has gotten better each and every year,” Hartleb said. “He had one of the best seasons ever as an Illinois player and had the best power I have ever seen go through our program.
“The type of person he is and the way he went about his business and what he did for the University of Illinois, it’s just been fun.”
Second baseman Ben Troike had a memorable season as well, batting .299 with four home runs and 40 RBIs, but it was his 57-game on-base streak, the longest active streak in the country at one point, that continued to make headlines throughout the year.
While the Illini came up short of making their goal this year, the program took a step forward compared to a year ago, both on and off the field.
“Compared to last year, we had a lot better year. We won a lot more games, we had a better season overall,” Yalowitz said. “I’m really proud of the way our team fought all year. This was a close group of guys and it’s tough knowing that was our last game against Purdue, but it bodes well for the future for sure.”
The improvement from last year to this year was also significant in Hartleb’s eyes when looking back on the 2018 campaign.
“We made tremendous strides this year. You look at last year, we didn’t make the conference tournament, we were 10th or 11th in the league and we were, this year, one game out of third,” Hartleb said. “I’m really proud of our guys. We made a lot of strides. We made strides off the field, in the classroom, on the field. Just a good group of guys, disappointed for them, but I’m really happy for the jump we have made.”