Shaikin: Can the Big West become college baseball's foremost conference out West?


The stadium lights are in place, along with the new turf, the portable bleachers just installed behind the outfield wall, and the excitement all around town. UC Santa Barbara hosts an NCAA baseball regional tournament for the first time this weekend, and the school expects to set an attendance record.

“I wish we had more seats,” UCSB coach Andrew Checketts said.

The Gauchos are riding a 14-game winning streak, the longest active streak in the nation. They have not lost at home all season. They open play Friday against Fresno State, and Bulldogs coach Ryan Overland calls the Gauchos “probably a top 10 team” in the country.

The excellence is not new. The Gauchos have made the regionals 15 times, including four appearances in the past five non-pandemic seasons. They have played in the College World Series more recently than UCLA or USC.

The implosion of the Pac-12 presents the Gauchos and the Big West Conference with an urgent choice. The premier baseball conference on the West Coast is no more. The Big West can fill the void, or not.

UCLA and USC used to be able to pitch recruits and their families on weekend trips to Berkeley and Tempe, Ariz. Now, that’s Indiana, Maryland and New Jersey: big travel for players, big bucks for their families to see them play.

“It’s definitely on people’s minds,” Overland said. “I don’t know if it’s deterred kids yet, if they want to stay closer to home, but it’s definitely changing the landscape of college athletics.”

Said University of San Diego coach Brock Ungricht: “Yes, 100%, that is coming up: Are we going to have to get on five, six plane flights across the country?”

The USD families are coming to Santa Barbara this weekend. The Fresno State families and alumni are too, at least the ones that can get tickets.

USD opens against Oregon, which is joining UCLA and USC in the Big Ten. Oregon coach Mark Wasikowski said the additional travel has not been a deterrent in recruiting.

The Ducks are going to enjoy charter flights in the Big Ten, he said, meaning a trip from Eugene to Nebraska should take less time than a bus ride to Portland and then a commercial flight — or two — to Tucson.

“It’s exciting for the kids,” Wasikowski said. “They all want to play Major League Baseball, which is a coast-to-coast game. So now we have to train them to be a coast-to-coast player.”

There will always be players who flock to the brightest lights, or to the SEC, where you can play before 10,000 fans, and where your team can make the regionals even if it finishes four games under .500 in conference play.

“I’m not a dummy in this,” Ungricht said. “You’re not going to get all those recruits away from those bigger schools.”

For all that sweet, sweet football money, and all the amenities it can buy, the Big Ten is not a good baseball conference.

A Big Ten team has not won the College World Series since 1966. Cal State Fullerton, of the Big West, has won four times since then.

And the Big Ten is not a West Coast conference. There is an actual West Coast Conference, represented here by USD. The WCC is firmly identified as a basketball conference, thanks to Gonzaga.

The Mountain West, represented here by Fresno State, is in an open relationship with Oregon State and Washington State until their fledgling Pac-2 succeeds or fails, and that is more about football than anything.

For the Big West, this should be go time.

Run with UCSB, with Fullerton, with Long Beach State, with UC Irvine, with Hawaii, with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, with rising programs at Cal State Northridge and UC San Diego. The farther you are from the heart of Los Angeles or San Francisco, the better your chance of branding your team as a community institution.

Think about what UCSB has to pitch: the same University of California degree as UCLA or Cal, plus a campus on a beach, plus winning, plus every conference road trip is within California — or to Hawaii.

To borrow from Jim Harbaugh, who’s got it better than the Gauchos?

“We’ve been selling that, for sure,” Checketts said. “The student-athlete experience is something that administrators like to talk about a lot. I think kids and families can get sucked into that the student-athlete experience means fan base, means stands, means gear, some of the sexier type of stuff.

“I tell our guys, you don’t know how lucky you have it. You’re rolling in at 9 o’clock at night on a Sunday [from a road series], and you still have time to do some homework, get some sleep and recover before the next day. It feels like that is the student-athlete experience we have to offer.”

The Big West should be the foremost baseball conference in a baseball hotbed.

“I think it’s teed up for that,” Checketts said. “Now, in order to do that, you have to have leadership. You’ve got to have administrators and school presidents and a conference office that views this as an opportunity and are willing to spend the time and energy and resources to grow the league.

“That will be the question moving forward: Do administrators, athletic directors, presidents and the conference office view it as the flagship sport, or a potential flagship sport, for the league, like it had been in the past?”

Oregon State is a baseball powerhouse. The collapse of the Pac-12 meant the Beavers needed a baseball home for the next two years. Yet they are headed to the WCC, not the Big West.

The Big West next year will become the last major conference to launch a baseball championship tournament, and with it the possibility of an unexpected winner earning the conference an extra spot in the regionals. Better late than never, but still late.

The Big West does not sponsor football, which is smart. The conference pays too much attention to men’s basketball, which is not smart.

UCSB and UC Irvine qualified for this year’s baseball regionals. The Big West has not sent two teams into March Madness since 2005.

The conference record in the NCAA tournament since then: 4-17, with two of the victories in play-in games. And let’s not pretend Big West schools can compete with UCLA or Duke in paying basketball players, or in facilitating their endorsement and sponsorship opportunities.

At the Big West level, given a good team and a nice facility, baseball can draw on par with men’s basketball. The sport that can give the Big West a big identity should be the priority.



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