Michigan thrilled to be back in NCAA baseball tourney
Ann Arbor — In his first two seasons at Michigan, coach Erik Bakich made it a routine to watch the NCAA Tournament selection show with his players.
Not that the Wolverines were threatening to make the field — they finished 29-27 in Bakich's first season in 2013 and 30-29-1 last season — but Bakich wanted his players to see what it would be like in case they made the field.
The wait is over.
UM (37-23) earned a No. 3 seed and will be in the NCAA Tournament field for the first time since 2008 after winning the Big Ten tournament last weekend and earning an automatic bid. The Wolverines will face second-seeded Bradley (35-19) on Friday in a double-elimination regional tournament in Louisville.
They watched the selection show Monday afternoon — this time as participants — in the locker room at the Wilpon Complex.
"I'm just happy for the kids; I'm thrilled for Michigan and thrilled for our program. It's what we talked about from Day 1 — winning championships and competing to get to the postseason and beyond," Bakich said. "We're standing on the shoulders of 148 years of proud Michigan baseball tradition and being lifted up by many great teams and great men that came before us.
"We're just trying to write our chapter on page 149 and just trying to contribute and do our piece."
Michigan was coming off back-to-back losing seasons when Bakich took the reins and now he has the team playing at a championship level, with four wins in five days last weekend in the conference tournament.
It's been a steady climb to get UM back to being contenders in the Big Ten — its last title was in 2008, when it swept both the regular season and tournament titles. That was in the midst of three straight regular-season titles and four straight NCAA Tournament berths.
But after missing the NCAA Tournament for six seasons, Bakich has the Wolverines back on track — in just his third season at the helm.
"It doesn't feel relatively quickly. It's trying to not make it about me, but about the kids," he said. "We've had our share of ups and downs and rough patches and it's made us the team we are today. It's made us strong in the end and that's what you want — to be playing your best when it means the most — and that's what we're doing."
Part of Bakich's approach has been getting the players to focus more on the seemingly minor details and putting those small wins into a bigger picture that could frame their success.
"It's the buy-in. His big thing is that everyone has to buy in if you want to win a championship," said junior Jacob Cronenworth, who was the most valuable player in the Big Ten tournament. "From the first year he was here, we were picked second-to-last and finished sixth. Last year, we stumbled a little and finished fourth and this year the buy-in was 100 percent. Everyone was there and had each other's backs."
It hasn't always been easy to get the team to concentrate on the minutiae, but it's proved effective, which has gotten more of them to take note and listen to the philosophy.
That also means there's a team concept, where there's more focus on each individual doing his job and not relying on one star player. That mix of role players helped guide the Wolverines through the Big Ten tournament, with different players making key contributions throughout the fortnight.
"We've got a lineup that one through nine all contributed in some form or another during those four games of our conference tournament," Bakich said. "We got a pitching staff who all of them seemed to have a great outing this last week and did an incredible job of minimizing the opponent's offense."
That included Cronenworth playing all nine innings in all four games — and closing all four of them, helping him earn MVP honors.
Even when UM did get some individual accolades — two plays were on the Top 10 plays on "SportsCenter" — Bakich didn't want to focus the attention on individuals.
Asked whether he liked Jackson Glines' diving catch in the outfield or Carmen Benedetti's catch over the railing in foul territory better, Bakich gave a predictable answer.
"If you get the No. 1 'SportsCenter' play and the No. 3 'SportsCenter' play in the same week, that's pretty good team defense," he said.
Where: Jim Patterson Stadium, Louisville, Ky.
Teams: No. 1 Louisville (43-16), No. 2 Bradley (35-19), No. 3 Michigan (37-23), No. 4 Morehead State (38-20)
At stake: Spot in best-of-three Super Regional against winner of Fullerton, Calif., regional
All games on ESPN3
Game 1: Michigan vs. Bradley, 2 p.m.
Game 2: Louisville vs. Morehead State, 6 p.m.
Game 3: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, noon
Game 4: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 4 p.m.
Game 5: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 loser, noon
Game 6: Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 4 p.m.
Game 7: Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner, if necessary, 6 p.m.