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Big Ten Baseball Tournament begins with IU as the #2 seed.

I haven't given much attention to IU baseball this season, and just a few short weeks ago, it looked as if the lack of attention was warranted. IU entered Big Ten play with a record of 8-13, but went 14-7 in Big Ten play and 8-6 in non-conference games after Big Ten play began (for those even more unfamiliar with college baseball than I am, teams tend to play three-game series against conference opponents on the weekends and then play a smattering of midweek non-conference games). IU might be the hottest team in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers enter the BTT, played in Columbus, on a 6-game winning streak, including 5 Big Ten wins. A season that looked dead in the water early somehow has ended with the Hoosiers as the #2 seed. The only other time IU has been seeded so high in the BTT was in 1996, when the two-seeded Hoosiers won the BTT for the first time. IU's only other BTT win came three years ago, when a team rich in MLB draft picks stormed through the field as a three seed, outscoring the opposition 45-9 in four games. Unfortunately, IU followed that performance with a flop in the NCAA Tournament, with blowout losses to Louisville and Vanderbilt (another note for those who don't follow college baseball--tournaments tend to be double elimination).

First, a bit of background on the Big Ten Tournament. This is the 32nd Big Ten Baseball Tournament. From 1981 through 1999, only the top four teams from the regular season standings qualified. Since 2000, the BTT has been a six-team event. The Tournament has been topheavy over the years: three programs--Minnesota (9), Michigan (8), and Ohio State (8) account for 25 of the 32 championships. Illinois (4) and Indiana (2) are the only other programs to have won the event. This is IU's ninth appearance in the BTT, and other than the championship seasons of 1996 and 2009, the Hoosiers have gone 6-12 in BTT games. Things have been a bit better under Tracy Smith, now in his seventh season as IU's head coach. Smith is 8-4 in three BTT appearances. Incidentally, according to his official bio on the IU site, Smith was IU's pitching coach in 1995-96, when IU won the BTT. That means that IU is 11-3 in BTT games with Smith on the IU bench in some capacity and 3-10 without him.

Standing in the Hoosiers' way, however, is Purdue. The Boilermakers won the Big Ten regular season title for the first time since 1909, and are the only Big Ten team with a shot at an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament if they don't win the Tournament. Purdue has slumped a bit in recent weeks, but still apparently is a solid top 20 team, relatively rare territory for a Big Ten team. Purdue and IU did not meet in the regular season, so any meeting in the next few days would have added significance. Here's a look at the bracket. Number 1 Purdue and #2 IU have byes into the second round tomorrow, while #4 Nebraska (surprisingly pedestrian in their first year in a much weaker conference) plays #5 Michigan State and #3 Penn State plays #6 Ohio State. Much like the NFL Playoffs, the bracket reseeds after the initial rounds, so IU will play either PSU, MSU, or NU, whichever is the highest seeded team remaining. As noted above, there is a losers bracket which is parallel to the main bracket, and the winner of the winner's bracket plays the winner of the loser's bracket on Saturday. If the team from the loser's bracket wins on Saturday (leaving both finalists with one loss), then the teams play again on Sunday. If the team from the winner's bracket wins on Saturday, giving the team from the loser's bracket its second loss, then it's over.

So, who to watch for if you tune in on the BTN this weekend?

  • If the Hoosiers have a lead late, expect to see Jonny Hoffman, the only reliever named to the All Big Ten first team, in the game. Hoffman, a junior from Oceanside, California, has a 7-1 record and 5 saves in 25 appearances, and in 53.1 innings he has struck out 32 and walked only 13. He allowed only five extra base hits, including two homers.
  • First baseman Sam Travis, a freshman from Orland Park, New York, was a second team All Big Ten selection and was named the conference's freshman of the year. He led the team with 9 HR and hit .324 with a .404 OBP.
  • Catcher Kyle Schwarber, a freshman from Middletown, Ohio, was a second team All Big Ten selection, and joins Travis on the All Big Ten second team. Schwarber his .313 and led the team with 30 walks and a .542 slugging percentage.
  • Starting pitcher Joey DeNato, a sophomore from San Diego and also a second team selection, went 7-3 with a 3.02 ERA, and struck out 72 while walking 26 in 84.2 innings pitched.

3B Chad Clark, OF Chris Sujka, and SP Kyle Hart also were named to the all-freshman team, giving IU 5 of 14 selections. With a young roster and a new stadium under construction, hopefully the Hoosiers can become a consistent threat for conference supremacy.