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A Battle Royale: Previewing The Big Ten Baseball Tournament

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The Big Ten Baseball Tournament is unique considering that we are one of the "Big Six" conference in all of college athletics. The Pac-10, Big 12, ACC, SEC, and Big East all have multiple bowl bids, get at least 3-4 teams into the NCAA basketball tournament each year, and even the Big East generally puts more than one team into the NCAA baseball tournament. The Big Ten is the same, except we're almost exclusively a one-bid mid-major in baseball. Conferences like the Big West, Sun Belt, and WAC are all a lot more respected than our own Big Ten. Weather plays a major role, as most teams begin with their first 20-25 games away from the end of winter here in the Midwest. The rest of it is schedule strength. The truth is that the Big Ten cannot grow as a baseball conference as long as everyone only has crap teams to play during their non-conference schedule.

That is what makes the Big Ten Tournament one of the most exciting in college baseball. Generally, only the winner is going to advance to the NCAA Tournament, with maybe one other team every few years. That's a large reason why the Big Ten hasn't had a College World Series team since Michigan went in 1984. You have six teams fighting for one and only one shot at glory. All six are usually pretty solid too, and this year's field may be one of the most balanced in history.

Indiana, one of just four teams that reached 30 wins this season, is not even in the tournament after getting swept at Illinois. Many of the schools in the field haven't appeared in an NCAA Tournament in quite some time. Michigan State, one of two conference champions, hadn't won a share of the title in 32 years, while Illinois, the other champion, has just three championships in the last 20 seasons. Everything is at stake this weekend, and as long as Ohio State or Minnesota does not win the tournament someone will be breaking quite a drought in terms of making the NCAA's.

With that in mind, here is a preview of all six teams:

#1 Seed: Illinois Fighting Illini (25-25, 15-9)

29 Big Ten Championships (most recent in 2011)

8 NCAA Tournament Appearances (most recent in 2000)

The Illini come in as the hottest team in the conference. They managed to chase down Michigan State for a share of the title at 15-9 by winning nine of their last 11 conference games. They got the tiebreaker for the #1 seed based on a 2-1 series win earlier in the year, and that means they get the lowest seed remaining (Penn State, Ohio State, or Minnesota) in round 2. During their streak they took two of three at Purdue (denying us a title), swept Indiana (knocking them out of the tournament), and took two of three against Ohio State. Their series losses were to Penn State and Michigan.

Still, Illinois is just 25-25 overall without playing an especially difficult schedule. It is possible that they got on a hot streak that may be coming to an end. Their starting pitching is a little suspect statistically, but they have handled Indiana and Purdue, two of the best offensive teams in the conference, to win their last five games. I'm not sure how they are getting it done with Pete Cappetta and Brandon Hohl leading the offense, but they are doing it.

#2 Michigan State Spartans (34-19, 15-9)

4 Big Ten Championships (Most recent in 2011)

4 NCAA Tournament Appearances (Most recent in 1979)

MSU won a share of this Big Ten title at home. Sparty was 11-1 in East Lansing, losing only on the final day of the season to Northwestern and giving Illinois a chance to pull even with them in the standings.  They have the second best overall record in the field at 34-19, and probably would be in line for an at large berth had they not been swept at Indiana two weeks ago. If anybody has an incredibly small chance at an at large berth, it is Michigan State, but only if they reach the championship round and lose in two games.

Brandon Eckerle has set a record for hits in a career at MSU, and he is one of the best hitters in all of college baseball. He is also a first team Academic All-American. The guy is a hitting machine, batting .381 and he needs nine hits this year to reach 100 on the season. MSU also has the best starting pitching with Kurt Wunderlich (9-2) and Tony Bucciferro (8-2) at the top of the rotation. Those two give MSU the best chance of anyone in the conference of advancing in the NCAA's. Once there, two quality starters can take a team a long way. Michigan State was 7-1 in the opening game of a weekend in league play, losing only 8-6 at Indiana.

#3 Purdue Boilermakers (36-18, 14-10)

1 Big Ten Championship (Most recent in 1909)

1 NCAA Tournament Appearance (Most recent in 1987)

Purdue is one of four Big Ten teams with only one visit to the NCAA Tournament, and they are the only one who has never won an NCAA Tournament game. Even Wisconsin, which no longer has a program, went 2-2 in the 1950 tournament. Lately the Boilermakers have come agonizingly close without actually doing much. They have the longest active streak of reaching the Big Ten Tournament (four years) and five second place regular season finishes since 2000. Still, it is no NCAA appearances in 24 years and no big Ten crowns in 102 years. With two victories Purdue will set a new program standard for wins in a season, yet because of a low RPI they have little chance of getting an at large bid even though they have the best overall record in the league. Our current RPI is 122.

Purdue gets it done by having the best top-to-bottom lineup in the league. Nine regular players are batting better than .300 led by Kevin Plawecki at .355. Purdue has a team batting average of .312. Unfortunately, the pitching hasn't always backed us up. The pitching staff has given up 29 home runs and has struggled with Brad Schreiber (4-0) being out with a shoulder injury. Joe Haase (6-3, 3.55 ERA) has been solid in Big Ten play, but we lack an "automatic" guy like Matt Bischoff was last year. If Purdue is going to win this thing, especially with only Haase, Matt Morgan, and Calvin Gunter as decent starting pitchers, they'll have t win four games (or more) by hitting the crap out of the ball. It doesn't help that we went 1-5 against the top two seeds.

If there is interest, I will set up open threads for all Purdue games int he tournament.

#4 Ohio State Buckeyes (25-25, 13-11)

15 Big Ten Championships (Most recent in 2009)

19 NCAA Tournament Appearances (Most recent in 2009)

Ohio State suffered the indignity of hosting the Big Ten Tournament last season without playing in it. This year they played one of the toughest schedules of any Big Ten team by playing a week in California, but that doesn't do a whole lot unless you win some games. They had enough pull to get Oklahoma State to come to Columbus for two midweek games (which they split). With a 25-25 record it is only natural to call their season "up and down".

Josh Dezse is their best hitter at .341, four homers and 42 RBI. Drew Rucinski is their best pitcher, but he is only 5-3 with a 2.88 ERA. They get the advantage in round one of playing a very familiar opponent. Minnesota hosted them last week at target field, but dropped two of three to fall from second to fifth in the league standings. That, plus the fact they are playing close to home, could be an advantage in tomorrow's tournament opener.

#5 Minnesota Golden Gophers (22-22, 13-11)

22 Big Ten Championships (Most recent in 2010)

30 NCAA Tournament Appearances (Most recent in 2010)

No team suffered more than Minnesota this year in terms of getting games in. The collapse of the Metrodome erased their unique home field advantage, making them play all conference games at Target Field and the remainder of midweek home games on campus. Early in the season Minnesota had to move around a number of games that were scheduled for the Dome, meaning they have played significantly fewer contests than most people. They have just 44 games to their credit compared to 54 for Purdue.

They have endured, however, and they are a seasoned team used to turning it on late. They nearly won a regional last season after making a late push for the NCAA bid, so this is a very dangerous team. A.J. Petterson leads them at the plate with a .335 average. T.J. Oakes is also a quality #1 starter with a 5-5 record and 3.45 ERA. It is possible he could pitch a deciding game on Sunday with three days' rest, so watch out if Minnesota reaches the final round.

#6 Penn State Nittany Lions (32-20, 12-12)

1 Big Ten Championship (Most recent in 1996)

19 NCAA Tournament appearances (Most recent in 2000)

Penn State hovered around .500 all season, but a 2-1 series win over Michigan last weekend put them into the field. This could be a dangerous team too. They won a regular season series at North Carolina State, which is the best series win over any Big Ten team. They also have a series win over Illinois. What they lacked was consistency. As our opening opponent in the tournament at 3:30 tomorrow, it is really a question of getting good Penn State or bad Penn State. Purdue won the regular season series 2-1. The first two games were close, but the finale was a 15-4 Purdue blowout.

Penn State has a pair of quality starters at the top with Steven Hill (6-4, 2.20 ERA) and John Walter (6-3, 2.94 ERA). Dave Walking is also a solid reliever with an ERA under two.  Sean Deegan is a very dangerous hitter with a .338 ERA and 12 homers. Jordan Steranka also has 57 RBI for them. Obviously this first game and the Nittany Lions are key because you simply cannot afford to fall into the loser's bracket on day one. Should Penn State get by us they will face Illinois, while a Purdue victory means we play Michigan State.

Tournament Schedule (all games televised on Big Ten Network)

Wednesday, May 25 (All times ET)

 Game 1:

No. 4 Ohio State vs. No. 5 Minnesota

12:05 p.m. | GAMETRACKER

 Game 2:

No. 3 Purdue vs. No. 6 Penn State

 3:35 p.m. | GAMETRACKER

Thursday, May 26

Game 3:

Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2

12:05 p.m. | GAMETRACKER

Game 4:

Highest Seed of Games 1 & 2 Winners vs. No. 2 Michigan St.

 3:35 p.m. | GAMETRACKER

Game 5:

Lowest Seed of Games 1 & 2 Winners vs. No. 1 Illinois

 7:05 p.m. | GAMETRACKER

Friday, May 27

Game 6:

Winner Game 3 vs. Lowest Seed of Games 4 & 5 Losers#

12:05 p.m. | GAMETRACKER

Game 7:

Winner Game 6 vs. Highest Seed of Games 4 & 5 Losers#

 3:35 p.m. | GAMETRACKER

Game 8:

Winner Game 5 vs. Winner Game 4

 7:05 p.m. | GAMETRACKER

Saturday, May 28

Game 9:

Winner Game 7 vs. Loser Game 8

 3:35 p.m. | GAMETRACKER

Game 10:

Winner Game 8 vs. Winner Game 9

 7:05 p.m. | GAMETRACKER

Sunday, May 29 (if necessary)*

Game 11

Winner Game 10 vs. Loser Game 10

12:05 p.m. | GAMETRACKER

# - Exception: if one of the Games 4 or 5 losers has already had a bye, that team will play in Game 6, regardless of seed.

* - If winner of Game 10 is also the winner of Game 9, Winner and Loser of Game 10 will play in an 11th game on Sunday