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Dick Harmon: BYU baseball coach Mike Littlewood got Cougars close to NCAA postseason

Published: Monday, May 27 2013 4:00 p.m. MDT

BYU celebrates a score as Brigham Young University plays University of Utah in baseball Tuesday, April 23, 2013, in Provo.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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BYU's baseball team had its bubble burst Monday.

Still, the NCAA postseason in baseball is an attainable goal for BYU coach Mike Littlewood.

The NCAA baseball tournament is a prime example of how the BCS promenade doesn’t necessarily punch tickets for the wealthy and elite.

Because it is organized and directed by the actual NCAA instead of an outfit the NCAA has kicked it to, like the BCS in football, it is interesting to see how it all breaks down.

Still heavily tied to money programs like the SEC, which qualified nine teams into the NCAA postseason, there is plenty of room for the other guys.

Cal State Fullerton, for example, earned one of the No. 1 seeds in one of the eight regionals. After all, the Titans from Fullerton won four national championships in baseball between 1979 and 2004 and have appeared in every NCAA baseball tournament since 1992.

In the state of Texas, not one Big 12 baseball program made it into the tournament. Instead, the four schools from the Lone Star state that made it in were Rice, Texas A&M, Sam Houston and USTA. This was the same number (four) as the Sun Belt Conference put into the tournament (Florida Atlantic, Louisiana Lafayette, South Alabama and Troy).

The 64-team field is a reasonable sprinkling of geography from across the country, representative of Division I play through all conferences. It appears fair and fun. The committee did its job.

Locally, the state’s best college baseball team did not advance. First-year BYU coach Littlewood watched the selection process and his Cougars were a bubble team edged out when upsets took place in conference tournaments across the land.

Still, Littlewood and his new staff have to be pleased with the season, although he told me more than a week ago the Cougars may have exceeded the expectations of some (second-place WCC finish when picked sixth), but did not exceed his expectations or that of athletic director Tom Holmoe.

Making the NCAAs may have changed that.

The Cougars were eliminated from the WCC tournament in Stockton, Calif., last week after a second loss to San Diego. BYU did eliminate top-seed Gonzaga, upset No. 13 Arizona State earlier in the year and can boast a split against top regional seed LSU. But it wasn’t enough.

“Our guys played their butts off. They showed a lot of character and I’d give them an A-plus for their effort this season,” said Littlewood.

Still, making the NCAA tournament would have pushed this first season down the track a little further for the Cougars.

One wonders what Littlewood’s team would have produced in its first year if a rash of injuries in the fall hadn’t ended the seasons of some key stars. Big lefty Connor Smith, recruited by the previous staff, dropped out of school, and injuries took out potential starter Chris Howard, Marc Oslund, outfielder Christian Mua and infielder Dillon Robinson.

“My philosophy is that you go with who you have. One of the things we told the team in the fall is we cannot have one guy on our team underachieve and those freshmen, we had to have them all step up. To a guy, every one of them did.”

In baseball, the NCAA tournament is one place a healthy team with reasonable bat talent and solid pitching can make noise. The Major League Baseball draft pretty much scours the high school realm and picks out the diamonds before they get to the college game.

That’s why the playing field in college baseball may not be exactly even — but it’s closer to being fair than the Everest you see in college football.

Go, Fullerton, San Diego and San Diego State.

Break a leg, Florida Atlantic.

Maybe someday, Littlewood.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.

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