While eight teams headed to Omaha is the goal this time of year, the Big Ten baseball tournament doesn’t quite have the same panache as the College World Series. Still, because Nebraska is in the league we get to move around the league tournament a bit. It used to be at the home of the regular season league champion, but in recent seasons the conference has used some pro facilities as host. It has been at Huntington Bank Park in Columbus, Target Field in Minneapolis, and this year it will be at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha for the third time.
TD Ameritrade Park is the 24,505 seat venue built explicitly for the College World Series in Omaha. Even the local Triple-A Storm Chasers play in a new smaller facility. It opened in 2011 and plays host to the CWS for two weeks (up to 17 games) every season. Creighton also plays its home games there, and it hosts a few other concerts and such. The Big Ten Tournament was there in 2014 and 2016 as well, and the league tournament will be there through 2022.
Even if it is on the far western end of the conference (and the league can’t be happy Nebraska did not qualify this year), it is still neat to see Purdue play in the host venue of the sport’s NCAA championship.
This year marks the 18th appearance in the Big Ten Tournament, which started in 1981. We have an all-time record of 18-34 in the event, with our lone title coming in 2012. Purdue has been runner-up in 2008 and 1987. In 2012 we were the No. 1 seed and beat Ohio State and then Indiana twice for the title. Last year we went 0-2 in our first appearance since the format expanded to eight teams. We lost to regular season champion Nebraska 15-9 and Maryland 5-2.
This year things are much different than previous Big Ten Tournaments. Big Ten baseball has seen massive improvement in recent seasons and has grown beyond being a one-bid league. Indiana reached the College World Series in 2013. They were a national seed in 2014 and Illinois was a national seed in 2015. The conference got a record five teams into the NCAAs in 2015 and 2017 and it heads into conference tournament weekend this week with the No. 6 conference RPI behind only the SEC, Big 12, ACC, American, and Pac-12. Minnesota is expected to host a regional, Indiana is an NCAA lock and has an outside shot at a regional, while Purdue, Ohio State, and Illinois are all in the top 50 and could earn an at large bid. Iowa and Michigan can play spoiler and take the automatic bid, too.
So let’s look at the eight teams in the field.
1 Seed: Minnesota Golden Gophers (37-13, 18-4, RPI: 16) – The Gophers have to be considered the favorite as they rolled to the conference title with relative ease. They are ranked 12th nationally and won all eight conference series they played. They had to go on the road to No. 2 Purdue and pounded us for 40 runs over two games before the third game was rained out. They have a nice road series win at TCU on their resume and a home series win over St. John’s. On paper, Indiana is the second best team in the conference and Minnesota swept them 4-1, 9-1, and 7-6. NCAA Outlook: They are a lock and will very likely host a regional unless they go 0-2.
2 Seed: Purdue Boilermakers (34-18, 17-6 RPI: 40) – Purdue has to be the surprise of the league. They were picked to finish as low as 11th out of 13 teams and they were in the title chase until the final weekend. Purdue earned sweeps over Michigan, Northwestern, Maryland, Penn State, and Rutgers in conference play. While that is wonderful, four of those teams weren’t good enough to even make the league tournament. Against the field here Purdue is 6-6. It swept Michigan, went 2-2 against Indiana (one of the Purdue wins was a non-conference game, officially) and 1-2 against Ohio State. NCAA Outlook: Purdue is looking for only its third bid ever to the NCAAs, and it probably gets it with just one win in Omaha. An 0-2 trip has them sweating it out on Monday. On a positive note, Purdue received votes in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll for the first time since 2012 today.
3 Seed: Michigan Wolverines (32-19, 15-8 RPI: 55) – At one point this year Michigan won 20 games in a row. They were the last team to lose a game in conference play, starting 11-0. They went 4-8 in the last 12 games and that included this past weekend’s sweep by Purdue. They have a win at Stanford, who is the new No. 1 nationally this week, but against teams outside the Big Ten Tournament they went 10-1, but just 6-7 against the tournament field (and four were against Michigan State). NCAA Outlook: Michigan’s hopes took a big blow in getting swept by Purdue. They need a deep run here, probably to the final. Ironically, if they beat Purdue it may help Purdue as they would climb into the top 50 and give us three more top 50 RPI wins (We’re currently 3-7).
4 Seed: Illinois Fighting Illini (31-18, 15-9 RPI: 50) – Illinois features the conference’s best hitter in junior Bren Spillane. He is hitting an impressive .407 with 22 home runs and 57 RBI. He gives them a chance in every game and they have a 5-5 record against the top 50, including a win at 2016 National champion Coastal Carolina. Their best work in conference was a 2-1 series win at Michigan. They also took a game from Indiana and Ohio State. NCAA Outlook: Illinois is pretty bubbly right at 50 on the RPI, so they could use a few wins in Omaha to feel safe. Getting on the Minnesota and Indiana side of the bracket will help. If they can beat Indiana in their first game on Wednesday that is a huge boost.
5 Seed: Indiana Hoosiers (37-15, 14-9 RPI: 23) – Indiana was the preseason conference favorite and spent much of the year ranked, but getting swept at Minnesota torpedoed their chances there. They also dropped a series at Ohio State and had single conference losses to Purdue, Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois. They are 7-10 against top 50 teams, with 12 of those games coming in conference play. They also won a nice road game at Louisville last week and won at Coastal Carolina in February. NCAA Outlook: The Hoosiers are a lock and with a strong Big Ten Tournament might even steal a hosting spot. They probably have to go 4-0 and win the whole thing in convincing fashion, but they have a shot.
6 Seed: Iowa Hawkeyes (32-18, 13-9 RPI: 66) – Iowa played two fewer games than Ohio State, losing games against Indiana and Nebraska to weather. That has them slightly ahead of the Buckeyes on percentage points. They are 8-8 against top 50 teams and have a nice series win over Oklahoma State. Their RPI took a nosedive when they lost a series to Northwestern two weeks ago. They have series wins over Ohio State, Illinois, and Michigan plus a win over Indiana. NCAA Outlook: The Northwestern series loss was a killer. They needed a sweep and barely got out with one game. They did win the conference tournament last year as a surprise winner and stole the autobid though.
7 Seed: Ohio State Buckeyes (34-20, 14-10 RPI: 41) – The Buckeyes are 9-8 against top 50 teams, with fewer wins only than Minnesota. They even beat the Gophers once while taking series from Indiana, Purdue, and Illinois. They lost series at Iowa and Michigan State, however. Like seemingly every other good Big Ten team, they also have a win at coastal Carolina, a possible host who is 38-17. If they had not dropped the series at Michigan State last weekend they would have been the 3 seed. NCAA Outlook: Probably a lock, which is good if you’re a Purdue fan since we’re ahead of them in the RPI. A win over the Buckeyes Wednesday afternoon almost certainly locks Purdue.
8 Seed Michigan State Spartans (20-30, 11-12 RPI: 188) – Maryland had the strong RPI and was the better team, but the Terps got swept at Indiana and Michigan State took a series from Ohio State to steal the last conference tournament bid. They still won more conference games (11) than non-conference games (9), but are 5-6 against the top 50 with two wins over Ohio State, one over Minnesota, and non-conference wins over Illinois and Arizona. NCAA Outlook: Sparty is the only true spoiler here, as it is only getting in if it steals the autobid. They did win game one of their series at Minnesota two weeks ago, so upsetting the Gophers in game 1 is not totally out of the question.
Here is your Wednesday schedule:
Wednesday (All games on Big Ten Network)
#3 Michigan (32-19, 15-8) vs. #6 Iowa (32-18, 13-9) 10am ET
#2 Purdue (34-18, 17-6) vs. # 7 Ohio State (34-20, 14-10) 2pm ET
#1 Minnesota (37-13, 18-4) vs. #8 Michigan State (20-30, 11-12) 6pm ET
#4 Illinois (31-18, 15-9) vs. #5 Indiana (37-15, 14-9) 10pm ET
And the full tournament bracket (Times on there are Central Time).