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Breaking Down The Big Ten Baseball Race

The Big Ten baseball season has reached its halfway point and the standings look a lot like last year. No one can seem to break free and gain momentum like Michigan did in a runaway a few seasons ago. Everyone has played 12 games and Purdue, Michigan State, and Penn State are all tied at the top of the standings with a 7-5 conference mark. Iowa is in last place at 4-8, making just a three game difference between the top and the bottom. In addition to the Spartans, Nittany Lions, and Boilermakers, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio State, Illinois, and Michigan are all tied at 6-6 a game behind the leaders. Don't count out Northwestern, who is the lone 5-7 team in the league.

That means everyone is alive for the one (maybe two?) bids that the conference will get into the NCAA Tournament. The first step is to qualify for the Big Ten Tournament, which takes the top six teams. If you don't at least do that, you're done anyway. At this rate none of those bids will be locked up until the final weekend. A few schools do have small chances to earn an at large berth in the NCAA Tournament, and Purdue is one of them. Here is a quick look at those profiles, as well as the prospects for the rest of the Big Ten season.

Purdue (27-13, 7-5) - For Purdue to have any chance whatsoever at making its first NCAA Tournament since 1987 as an at large team we have to win the Big Ten outright. Of course, we haven't won the Big Ten at all since 1909. We do have an edge on the field at the moment. We own the tiebreaker over Penn State with a series win and we still have to play Michigan State, Indiana, and Illinois.

Purdue has 15 games left before the Big Ten Tournament, and they probably need to win at least 10 of them to have a realistic shot at an at large bid. That would tie the 1986 team for most wins in a season in program history, though it was the 1987 team that went 36-24-1 to earn our only NCAA Tournament berth to date. Purdue went 35-23 and was left out in 2000. Probably the most egregious snub was 1993, when Purdue was 36-22 with an 11-1 win over #5 Florida State, but a four game losing streak to end the season knocked them out. Of course, that was when the field was still 48 teams, so they would have probably made it under the 64-team current system.

Purdue's best teams in the 64-team era were 35-23 (17-11 Big Ten) in 2000, 32-24, (19-7 Big Ten) in 2001, and 32-26 (21-10 Big Ten) in 2008. The 2001 team missed winning the Big Ten by a half game because of a snow out at Michigan State, had a win over #1 Rice to start the year, owned a win over a ranked Wake Forest team, but still didn't get in. In 2000 Purdue swept Illinois in four games when they were ranked, beat Minnesota in three out of four when they too were ranked, had wins over Alabama, Notre Dame, and East Carolina as ranked teams, yet still didn't get in. The 2000 team was probably robbed.

The translation: Don't set your hopes on an at large bid unless Purdue finishes on a tear and gets to 40 wins before the Big Ten Tourney. That is possible though. They should win their remaining non-conference games against Valparaiso (tonight), Ball State, and Illinois-Chicago. 11 of the last 14 games are at home too. Purdue has yet to sweep a Big Ten opponent (the closest was Michigan), but getting a sweep or two of the three remaining home series while winning the rest would likely give them a Big Ten crown. The season opening win over Connecticut has some value since the Huskies moved back into the top 25 this week. Louisville and Pittsburgh remain strong wins too. As far as "good" losses, Illinois State and Vanderbilt are likely NCAA Tourney teams, with Vanderbilt in the hunt for a top 8 national seed.

Michigan State (24-12, 7-5) - The Spartans have the fewest losses of anyone in the conference, so they are often projected as receiving our automatic bid at this point. They were in a similar position last season before taking a nosedive and missing the Big Ten Tournament despite going 34-19 overall. They were just 11-13 in conference play. Their record at the 12-game mark last year: 7-5.

There is a question as to how good Michigan State is. Their best win is over Pittsburgh, but other than that they have a bunch of mediocre wins. They started the conference season 5-1 by taking two of three from Iowa and sweeping Minnesota, but overall their profile is probably worse than Purdue's. Of course, playing us at home next weekend would help them a lot, as a series win would help them take control in the race. They also play Penn State this weekend.

Penn State (24-13, 7-5) - The Nittany Lions are already down after losing a home series to us, so they need a series win this weekend at Michigan State. Their profile looks a little better after winning a series at North Carolina State, especially when the Wolfpack swept North Carolina (a top 10 team) and beat #1 Virginia last week. That series win over NC State is probably the best non-conference series win for a Big Ten team. They also took two of three at perennial power Wichita State, so if they can finish strong and win the conference by a couple of games Penn State might have just enough schedule strength to get in without the auto-bid.

Penn State has won every series in conference play except Purdue. They only have a home series left against Minnesota, however, as they have to go to Michigan State, Michigan, and Iowa. That's not a bad finishing stretch.

Indiana (25-15, 6-6) - I decided to include the Hoosiers here because they were receiving votes in the top 25 as recently as last week. Then they were swept at home by Minnesota. They still have to play Purdue (this weekend in West Lafayette) and Michigan State at home, so they aren't quite done. The sweep by the Golden Gophers was a heavy blow though.

Indiana has some very nice non-conference wins to boost their profile. They won at Coastal Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisville. They also beat Connecticut, and Jacksonville State for solid non-conference wins. They have a close loss to Oregon State, which would have been a huge boost since the Beavers are a top 10 team and even top 5 in some polls. IU has probably the most varied number of wins outside of the Big Ten.

Final breakdown

Of the ten Big Ten teams, only these four have any chance to get an at large berth, and they all likely have to win the conference by multiple games to have any chance. Everyone else has a losing record outside of conference, and therefore no chance outside of taking the automatic berth of the Big Ten Tournament. Just about the only way I can see the Big Ten getting multiple teams in is if someone like Purdue, Indiana, or Penn State wins the league by multiple games, but loses the conference tournament in the championship round to one of the other solid teams. Thsi is where getting a good program like Nebraska (currently 25-16) will help.

Fortunately, I think Purdue has an edge right now with the series win over Penn State already in the bank. Getting Indiana and Michigan State the next two weekends helps too, since we can then gain some space against them in the standings. This is a huge weekend for the four at large contenders because Indiana is at Purdue and Penn State is at Michigan State. If Purdue can win this weekend's series with the Hoosiers they will still be in first place as long as the MSU-PSU winner doesn't win in a sweep. A series sweep of Indiana would be even better since it would: 1. likely end the Hoosiers' at large hopes, 2. be a nice boost to our own profile since they are a good team, and 3. it would cement us atop the standings.