Kentucky baseball coach Nick Mingione reacts to being left out of NCAA Tournament
It's always time for the blame game, of course. When disappointment lands with such a thunderous thud, as it did for the Kentucky baseball team on Memorial Day Monday, grievances become the predictable chain-reaction, complete with an inevitable dose of we-was-robbed.
After all, nationally ranked throughout the season, winners of 34 games with a No. 30 RPI ranking and more series wins against top-15 teams than any other college program in America, Kentucky did not find its name among the 64 filling the NCAA Tournament brackets announced by the Selection Committee.
The omission caused the normal social media outcry, especially from those that bleed blue, but when UK head coach Nick Mingione met with the media on Tuesday, he didn't join the chorus of boos.
"Look, the NCAA, their committee, they've got a tough job," Mingione said. "They have a really difficult job. And you know what, I think they've done in their eyes the best job they could possibly do."
Ray Tanner, committee chairman and athletic director at South Carolina, won multiple national championships as head baseball coach of the Gamecocks. He knows the league, said Mingione. And while the coach said he did not personally know the other committee members, he was sure they were quality people charged with a difficult task.
"They don't deserve any bad or negative feedback that they're getting," Mingione said. "It's hard."
The coach also said this: "Obviously, I'm disappointed."
And this: "It's my fault."
Well, yes. And no. The buck always stops with the head coach and Mingione led a team that harbored high expectations after advancing to a super regional last year before being bounced by Louisville. And yet, the breaks of the game played a hand in popping this year's balloon.
Sean Hjelle, SEC Pitcher of the Year, returned from last season. So did fellow starters Justin Lewis and Zack Thompson. And while the Cats did lose some offensive firepower from the 2017 edition, it enjoyed standout years from Kole Cottam, Luke Heyer and Tristan Pompey.
Alas, the injury bug bit and bit hard down the stretch. Thompson, projected as the nation's best sophomore starter, missed a chunk of the season. Lewis, part-time starter Zach Haake, setup man Carson Coleman and closer Chris Machamer all missed time down the stretch. And the Cats lost five of their final six games, including a three-game sweep at Vanderbilt.
Not one to make excuses, Mingione did admit, "The pitching thing, that really hurt. Going into that (last) series, you don't have five guys."
What also hurts is that Mingione believed all five would have pitched in the NCAA Tournament, had the Cats been given the opportunity.
"Unfortunately, the last time we had all five guys healthy we were No. 4 in the country," the coach said. "But you know what, every team has injuries."
In the end, however, by the committee's estimation, the Cats didn't have enough SEC victories. UK finished the regular season 13-17 in league play, then lost to Auburn in the first round of the conference tournament. On the ESPNU Selection Show, Tanner referred to the record as "a glaring weakness against Kentucky."
Moving on, next week's Major League Baseball Draft could bring some glaring holes to fill next season. That's OK, said Mingione. Part of program development, he said, is "popping out top 10 rounders."
One piece it won't lose, insisted the head coach, will be the head coach.
"I'm going to be right here, said Mingione, who has been the subject of considerable coaching carousel conjecture, especially with regard to the opening his old boss John Cohen has at Mississippi State. "You better talk to Mitch Barnhart. Does he still want me? I will be the coach at Kentucky, yes."
And a Kentucky disappointed that it is not still playing this season.
"The committee, they're in charge," Mingione said. "And I respect their opinion."