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Big Expectations For Purdue Baseball

Believe it or not, college baseball is just about a week away. Purdue begins its schedule next Friday in the Big Ten/Big East Challenge at 1pm against Cincinnati. The Boilers also play Connecticut and Notre Dame in the event. The first home game is against No. 24 Louisville on March 27, and they even have a date at Victory Field in Indianapolis on April 4th.

This will be the final season at Lambert Field (no, really!) as the athletic department recently announced that the new Alexander Field project will not be finished in time to have any regular season games this year. I don't if the season goes exceptionally well and Purdue is asked to be a regional host if it can be ready in mid-May, but that is too far ahead.

It isn't that farfetched, as this year's baseball team has an excellent chance of being the best in school history. Reliever Nick Wittgren is considered one of the top closers in the country, while the excellent blog College baseball Today has Purdue as one of the Big Ten favorites:

The Good News:

37 man. Thirty-freakin-seven. Last year's win total equalled the school's high-water mark for a single season. Niiiiiice. But the Boilers are looking for even more in 2012. I had this PU squad picked 8th in the 2011 Big 10 pre-season rankings, just imagine what they can do this year after being selected in the 4-slot going into the season? Nearly every piece of the puzzle is back in the field and batting order with a heavy junior-senior team. The Boilermakers hit .309 last year (and .402OB% as a team) and six of the returnees went .300+. Also, the infield of 1B Cameron Perkins, 2B Eric Charles, SS David Miller (.281, 41BBs, 10SBs) and 3B Barrett Serrato (though he switched between 3B and OF last year) could be as good as there is in the Big 10, sure to improve its .967 defense. And catcher Kevin Plawecki is solid, committing just 3Es last season and had a big time summer in the Cape Cod League too. RHP Joe Haase (6-5, 3.39) will assume the ace role on the staff and will have RHP Robert Ramer (5-0, 4.91) and Calvin Gunter (5-3, 6.75) behind him. In the ‘pen, Nick Wittgren led the Big 10 in saves in his first year on campus. Look for more from the big righty in 2012, which would be a huge boon to the Boilermaker arms staff. One returner not listed above that will play a big role will be two-way threat Angelo Cianfrocco, who hit .308 in 26 starts, but also began pitching last May and became the first reliever out of the pen by the Big 10 Tournament. And on top of all this, the Boilers are also slated to move into their new home in April of 2012, the Northwest Complex, a state-of-the-art stadium that should raise the profile of the program. Can't wait to see where this goes.

That is a great summation of what the Boilers have going into 2012, and a conference title absolutely should be the goal. Purdue has not won the Big Ten since 1909, and has come within a game or two of it at least five times since 2001. It's time to end the drought. We also have not made the NCAA Tournament since our only trip in 1987.

A big reason Purdue didn't make the tournament last year despite tying the program record with 37 wins was our RPI. Essentially, we beat no one. Our best wins were Connecticut and Louisville, who were both disappointing. This year the schedule is much more difficult and the NCAA has decided to reward teams for road victories:

For years, Northern coaches have griped that the RPI is inherently biased against them, because the cold weather early in the season forces them to play a preponderance of their nonconference games on the road, but the RPI formula weighs road games and home games equally. Long-term NCAA data shows that home teams win about 62 percent of the time, so the committee decided to compensate for that home-field advantage by modifying the RPI formula.

"You've got some teams that play virtually all their nonconference games at home, and others that play virtually none at home," said long-time NCAA statistics director Jim Wright, baseball's RPI guru. "If you play 80 percent of your games at home, that's a pretty big advantage over a team that plays 20 percent of its games at home."

The RPI is a major tool used by the committee to fill out the NCAA tournament field. A team's RPI is made up of three components: its winning percentage (which comprises 25 percent of its RPI), its opponents' winning percentage (50 percent), and its opponents' opponents' winning percentage (25 percent). Under the new formula, that first 25 percent-a team's winning percentage-will be calculated differently. Road wins will now be worth 1.3 victories, while neutral-site wins will be worth 1.0 victories, and home wins will be worth 0.7 victories. Conversely, home losses will count as 1.3 losses, and road losses will count as 0.7.

This is a huge boost for Purdue, as the Boilers play only 17 games at home compared to 29 on the road and eight at a neutral site. If Purdue gets back to 37 victories it will have a much higher RPI because of this and the difficult schedule.

In the ESPN/USA Today preseason top 25 we have four games against ranked teams. The home opener against Louisville and a three-game road series in the middle of Big Ten play against UCLA.This is a series I love, and I have tried to get a Twitter campaign going for a grassroots Big Ten/Pac12 baseball challenge. My reasoning is simple. Each conference has only 11 baseball playing schools with Colorado and Wisconsin not fielding programs. That means one team each week has an open series. If you schedule the open teams against each other you solve part of the Big Ten's problem of little to no marquee non-conference home games. Expect this going forward with the new Big Ten/Pac 12 scheduling agreement across all sports.

Purdue has several games against teams in the "others receiving votes" category. There are single games against Connecticut, Southern Miss, East Carolina, Missouri State, three games with Illinois, and four games with Wichita State. All of those are away from home except Illinois, so they will greatly help in the new RPI formula.

Fellow members of the Big Ten should help raise the strength of schedule as well. Defending champion Michigan State has a 3-game series at Texas A&M, who played in last year's College World Series. Illinois is going out to Oregon to play Oregon and Oregon State. The addition of Nebraska, a solid program, helps everyone, and they host California early on. Ohio State will play at Georgia Tech and Oklahoma State, while Michigan convinced Coastal Carolina to play four games, two at home and two away, as a marquee opponent.

In conclusion, all the pieces are there for Purdue. The offense and bullpen should be excellent. The starting pitching is dicey, but that is true almost anywhere in college baseball. If Purdue and replicate last year's success the RPI should be strong enough to merit at large consideration, and with fellow Big Tne favorites Illinois and Michigan State coming to Purdue, the time has come to end that pesky 103 year Big Ten title drought.