After 20 games to open the season away from home the Boilermakers finally return home on Tuesday afternoon to play a game at Lambert Field. As has been mentioned before, this will be the final season at Lambert Field, as Alexander Field is not yet ready for play. There is a very small chance it could be ready in June if Purdue is selected as an NCAA regional host, but that is still pretty far off.
I am writing this today because there is definitely a chance Purdue can be in the regional hosting discussion, at least on merit. The NCAA likes to reward northern, cold weather schools for good seasons under the premise of "expanding the game" In recent years Michigan, Connecticut, and Louisiville have all been regional hosts. Michigan hosted in 2008 as a No. 2 seed under this premise.
One of the stipulations is that a field must have lights, however. In the case of Connecicut, they used a nearby minor league park. Victory Field in Indianapolis is out of the question that weekend, as the Indians are in town. Other possibilities could be Parkview Field in Ft. Wayne or the U.S. Steel Yard in Gary, but again, that is a ways off. In speaking with Purdue's baseball SID a few weeks ago he said that Alexander Field could possibly be done by the time of the regionals (first weekend of June) but it would be a stretch.
The important thing is that through 20 games, Purdue has a legitimate shot of being in the host discussion. If the season ended today, the Boilers would definitely be in the NCAA tournament for only the second time ever and first since 1987. Warrennolan.com provides some excellent ratings for college baseball, and Purdue is currently 10th in the RPI, which is excellent for a northern school that has yet to play at home. This is before the 1.3 multiplier for true road wins kicks in next season, and Purdue was as high as fifth before yesterday's one run loss to Ohio State.
Best of all, Purdue already has several wins that will pay dividends over the year. Against the top 50, Purdue is 6-2, with wins over Notre Dame (No. 43), East Carolina (No. 49), Auburn (No. 22), Missouri State (No. 32), and Ohio State (Twice, No. 45). The Ohio State, Auburn, East Carolina, and Missouri State wins were true road wins on the opponent's field too.
The down side is that Purdue only has three remaining games to get top 50 wins as the teams stand right now. Those all come May 5-6 when Purdue goes to no. 4 UCLA. Louisville, Illinois, and Nebraska are all in the top 60 though, with Michigan State at No. 70.
Four of Purdue's remaining weekend series come against teams rated 200 or lower. That's good for the goal of winning the first Big Ten title in 103 years, but bad for the RPI, which will drop, especially if Purdue loses any of those games. Ball State (twice), Butler, and IPFW (twice) are all sub.-200 teams as well. That's 17 games left against sub.-200 squads. Purdue also has a non-Division I game against Anderson University at Victory Field on April 4, which doesn't count in the RPI formula.
The good news is that if Purdue goes something like 16-2 against those teams they will be at 32 wins before the other 17 games, and a split in those 17 would have the Boilers at 40 wins and solidly in the field without the Big Ten Tournament's automatic bid. As things stand right now, Purdue is probably the only team from the Big Ten in the at large discussion, with Ohio State (No. 45) and Nebraska inching that way. So far, Purdue's worst loss is at No. 90 Wichita State (twice), but that is far from awful.
There are 35 games left in the season before the Big Ten Tournament, and so far, Purdue has exceeded what it needed to do in order to reach the NCAA Tournament. Yes, there is always the option of winning the Big Ten Tournament and getting the automatic bid, but as a mid-major baseball conference that is usually lucky to get two teams into the NCAAs, being an at large "lock" at this point is major.
The Big Ten last sent three teams to the NCAAs in 2009 when Ohio State and Minnesota earned at large bids, while Indiana stole the automatic bid. Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio State also all went in 2007. Nebraska, our newest member, also went that season, and went nine times between 1999 and 2008. The Big Ten has not sent a member to the CWS since 1984 unless you count Nebraska reaching Omaha in 2001, 2002, and 2005.
Going forward, Purdue has some pretty clear goals. The Boilers share a very early lead in the Big Ten at 2-1 with Nebraska, Iowa, and Indiana. Michigan State, Minnesota, and Michigan have yet to play a conference game, however. With only 11 baseball schools (Wisconsin hasn't had a team in 20 years) one team will be "off" each weekend, making the standings very fluid. Purdue has an excellent chance to build an early lead by playing Penn State (5-16, 1-2) and at Northwestern (8-14, 1-2) the next two weekends. Those each need to be sweeps so Purdue can be 8-1 in league play and have a nice lead before hosting Illinois (11-9, 1-2). Purdue's difficult Big Ten stretch is Illinois-at Nebraska-Michigan State. Having a series win over Ohio State already under our belts is big though.
The first goal is to play well enough that an NCAA tournament berth is locked up before going to the Big Ten Tournament at the end of May in Columbus. To do that, I think Purdue needs to at least match last season's program-record 37 wins. Given that this year 37 wins will have come against a much tougher schedule, I think we can feel pretty safe if the Boilers reach that mark. Anything better is obviously a bonus, and 40, which is very reasonable given the remaining schedule, would have to lock Purdue in.
Second, Purdue would be in the hosting discussion if it can win outright the Big Ten. This year's Big Ten is probably a little better than last year's, especially with Nebraska. Purdue has one Big Ten title, in 1909, but it has finished within a game of winning the title at least four times since 2001. it is time for that streak to end, and the next two weekends against the two weakest teams will go a long way toward that. Nebraska (17-9), Michigan State (13-7, defending champ), and Ohio State (12-10) will likely be the toughest competition for that.
Finally, a win in Tuesday's home opener would be very nice. Though Louisville does not have a high RPI (60), they are ranked and are 18-6 overall. it is our last chance to add another very good non-conference win before that difficult series at UCLA. Purdue also only gets 17 home games, so it is the first chance for students to get out there and support what might be the best baseball team in Purdue's history. Becoming just our second NCAA team and first Big Ten winner in 103 years would certainly qualify as "Best in program history" in my book.