REGULAR SEASON POWER RANKINGS
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T-10. Northwestern, Penn State, Purdue, Rutgers. These teams had
nice seasons. Frankly, none of them have anything to be proud of. The closest thing each of them had to an accomplishment?
Northwestern had a season-ending series win over Maryland, but the Terps are certainly riding the struggle bus, so it's not a wildly successful weekend.
Penn State beat Indiana once in what was the official beginning of the Hoosiers midseason slump.
Purdue won its last five games, although they didn't beat anyone who matters. And they lost a series to Rutgers. On the bright side, the Boilers were able to cut down on the number of injuries caused by outfielders slipping on cow pies by developing a system where they stop letting coeds graze in the outfield during the week. Novel idea.
And Rutgers. They somehow took two out of three from Iowa this past weekend, So, I take back that none of them have anything to be proud of. They must feel the way we would feel if they were no longer in the Big Ten.
Close, But No Cigar
9. Minnesota. It was undoubtedly a disappointing season for the Gophers. We noted in a previous article about how Indiana had righted the ship for Big Ten baseball that Minnesota was part of the wildly successful start that the conference had. But this season, Minnesota was never able to get it going. They started the Big Ten with series losses to Maryland, Northwestern, and Rutgers and were never able to recover. The Gophers finished 1/2 game behind Nebraska and out of the Big Ten Tournament.
They're In, But That's About It
8. Nebraska. The Huskers started the season ranked 23rd and spent most of April in the Top-25. But a series loss against Ohio State started a downward trend that Darin Erstad's team has not been able to buck. They lost 10 of their last 15, which included a series loss to Purdue and sweeps by Iowa and Illinois. It appears that Nebraska needs a deep run in the Big Ten tournament just to get back into the NCAA conversation, a feat that will be extremely difficult given a first-round matchup with Illinois.
7. Maryland. Maryland backed into the 4-seed in the Big Ten tournament. The Terps lost six of their last nine Big Ten games and dropped a weekday game against Liberty. And it took a 4-run 8th against Northwestern on Saturday to avoid a sweep and falling in to 6th place. The once unflappable Mike Shawaryn, who started the season 10-0, has lost two of his last three, and the rest of the Maryland staff has also struggled. In a 6-game Big Ten stretch in series with Indiana and Ohio State, the Terps gave up 52 runs. They got it back together a bit against Northwestern, but the Wildcats only score 4.2 runs per game. They'll begin tournament play as the 4-seed, playing Michigan State on the Illinois half of the bracket.
6. Ohio State. The Buckeyes finished even worse than Maryland, losing eight of their last nine Big Ten games, and falling all the way to 7th in the conference after starting 12-3. The only reason I have them listed above Maryland is that they avoided the Illinois half of the bracket by being so bad down the stretch. But for the Buckeyes to have any chance, no matter who they play, their starting pitching must improve. They open the tournament against 2-seed Iowa.
It Could Go Either Way
5. Michigan State. Sparty was 11-6 in Big Ten play with seven games left and no one good left on the schedule (Purdue, Penn State, Minnesota). But they lost four of those last seven, and dropped to 5th in the conference. Michigan State's runs per game are down over the last couple weeks, but their pitching staff will give them a chance in any game. It'll just be a matter of whether they can put it all together on any given day. They open with 4-seed Maryland.
4. Michigan. The Wolverines went 14-10 in the Big Ten, but only lost two series (a sweep by Nebraska, and two of three against Iowa.) But the record may be inflated by not playing Illinois, Ohio State, or Michigan State (other than one game in Detroit.) They won two close ones against Indiana during IU's really big slump, and that seemed to catapult them toward the 3-seed. But I'm not sure that they're for real, and getting shellacked by Oklahoma State in two out of three this past weekend didn't help convince me otherwise. They open with the Hoosiers in the tournament.
Nobody Wants to Play Them
3. Indiana. There's no need to go into a bunch of detail, as we've spent the last two weeks talking about how this team is getting hot at the right time. This past weekend, they showed that not only are they finding ways to win every kind of game, but the pitching staff is peaking and everyone knows that if Indiana's pitching is at its best, anyone it plays is in trouble. If the pitching can do what it's done the last few weekends or, even better, revert to what it was in February and early-March, the Hoosiers are poised for a deep run in Minneapolis. They face Michigan in the first game of the tournament.
2. Iowa. Iowa probably should be a rung above IU in the power rankings, but they're closer to the Hoosiers than they are to Illinois, so we'll put them in the "Nobody Wants to Play Them" category. The Hawkeyes have a stellar starting rotation, but I'm not sure if the bullpen is deep enough for them to win the conference tournament, especially if they lose on Wednesday or Thursday and have to play on Friday. If they can start 2-0 and get through Saturday without using a spot starter, they would be fine. But an early loss could spell trouble. They'll play Ohio State on Wednesday.
1. Illinois. The Illini have won 26 straight ballgames dating back to March 29 when they suffered their only Big Ten loss to Michigan State. As a team, the Illini lead the Big Ten in batting average and ERA. They have four pitchers who have made more than 10 starts, going a combined 30-4, and recording an astonishing 2.34 ERA. And their closer, Tyler Jay, is 5-1 with 12 saves in 26 appearances, with just a 0.67 ERA. He expects to be an early first-round draft pick later this year. Put all of that together, and you get the tournament favorite who is well on its way to becoming the second team in Big Ten history to earn a national seed (Indiana was the first in 2014). They'll start with 8-seed Nebraska.
HOW THE TOURNAMENT WORKS
The Big Ten tournament bracket starts simple enough for anyone to figure out. The winners of games one and two play each other. The same goes for the winners of games three and four. The losers of those contests will meet with each other as well. Thus, anybody can figure out the potential matchups on Thursday.
But it does get a bit odd from there. Rather than the winners of Thursday's winners games playing each other to stay in a winner's bracket, the two winners get Friday off while the losers of Thursday's winners games play the winners of Thursday's losers games.
Then, on Saturday, the winners of Friday's games swap brackets to play the 2-0 team that was originally in the other half of the bracket. If the 2-0 team wins that game, they advance to Sunday's championship. If the team with one loss already to their name wins, those two teams play again in an elimination game, the winner of which advances to Sunday's championship. And on Sunday, regardless of how many losses the two remaining teams have, one game is played and the winner is the Big Ten champion.
PREDICTIONS SURE TO GO WRONG
(Predicted winner in bold)
Game 1: (3) Michigan vs. (6) Indiana
Game 2: (2) Iowa vs. (7) Ohio State
Game 3: (1) Illinois vs. (8) Nebraska
Game 4: (4) Maryland vs. (5) Michigan State
Illinois and Iowa are easy picks given their domination of the league and their opponents sputtering to the finish line. I like the red-hot Hoosiers over a Michigan team that I'm just not convinced is as good as their record. And Maryland's Mike Shawaryn gets back on track and leads the Terps to a win over Sparty.
Game 5: Michigan vs. Ohio State
Game 6: Michigan State vs. Nebraska
Game 7: Iowa vs. Indiana
Game 8: Illinois vs. Maryland
Again, Illinois is an obvious choice. Ohio State wins because they wake up and realize how much trouble their season is in and play desperately. Michigan State won't bow out easily, and Nebraska just doesn't have it. Iowa and Indiana could go either way. For Indiana, it all comes down to who starts. If this is Kelzer or Morris, I don't think Indiana has a chance. But if it's Hart, Harrison, or Baragar, I think the Hoosiers show up and avoid losing a 4th game to Iowa this season.
Game 9: Iowa vs. Ohio State
Game 10: Michigan State vs. Maryland
Iowa won't lose two in a row, and Ohio State won't win two in a row. Mike Shawaryn won't start twice in three days. Give me Iowa and Michigan State.
Game 11: Illinois vs. Iowa
Game 12: Indiana vs. Michigan State
Game 13: Unnecessary
Game 14: Michigan State vs. Indiana
Illinois continues to roll. Indiana probably still isn't good or consistent enough to roll through this tournament unscathed, and Michigan State is plenty good to make a deep run. Sparty hands IU its first loss. But the Hoosiers' pitching depth pays off in their 4th and Michigan State's 5th game of the weekend and the Hoosiers qualify for the title game.
Big Ten Championship Game: Illinois vs. Indiana
At this point, Illinois would have 29 straight wins if it plays out the way I've predicted. Indiana would have burned through its battery by playing two on Saturday. To me, the game depends wholly on whether or not Kyle Hart is the starter for Indiana. The problem is that I'm not sure Kyle Hart can pitch on Wednesday and then again on Sunday. I could be completely wrong, but I have a hard time imagining Lemonis throwing Hart on such short rest compared to his normal Saturday to Saturday break. He did go Saturday to Friday over the last two weekends of the season, but that's still two days shorter than what this would require. For that reason, I think Illinois gets its 30th consecutive win.
I could be persuaded to pick the other way, however. Convince me why Indiana is going to win or other ways I got it wrong in the comments if you wish.