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Indiana baseball preview part I: The non-conference schedule

The Hoosiers will face a number of tough early-season challenges, giving them an opportunity to score RPI-friendly wins.

Luke Miller takes a cut against Western Carolina.

Ed. note: The Indiana Hoosiers will begin their 2017 baseball campaign in just 21 days when they take on the Gonzaga Bulldogs in Surprise, Arizona, in one of four games the club will play that weekend. Over the course of those 21 days, Crimson Quarry will unveil a four-part season preview with everything you need to know about the upcoming season:

Part I - Non-conference opponents

Part II - Big Ten opponents

Part III - The Hoosiers

Part IV - Predictions and prognostications, February 16

In part I of our Indiana baseball preview, we take a look at each of Indiana’s non-conference opponents and any key players they might have. All in all, the Hoosiers’ non-conference schedule is far better than 2016’s, which doomed their NCAA Tournament chances. Yet, there are still some bad teams that will cause RPI problems if Indiana drops games to those clubs. Additionally, there are some midweek games and some series matchups that you would prefer to see flipped. But there is no doubt that Indiana has improved its non-conference schedule and given itself early season challenges that could set this team up for success down the road.

Gonzaga Bulldogs

Where: Surprise, Arizona

When: February 17 & 19

2016: 36-21 (18-9 WCC), RPI: 33, NCAA Tournament regional qualifier

The Hoosiers will face a tough opening test as they play a Gonzaga team that impressed in 2016, especially with a win over Arizona State in Fort Worth regional of the NCAA Tournament before eventually getting bounced by losses to TCU and the Sun Devils.

In 2017, the Zags will be led by RS Senior Jeff Bohling who Collegiate Baseball named to its 3rd preseason All-American team. The third baseman started all 57 of Gonzaga’s games lat season and hit .298 with 8 home runs, driving in 50 runs and scoring 51. He turned in a slugging percentage of .522. In each of those categories, he finished Top 10 in the West Coast Conference.

As for the Zags’ battery, Sam Hellinger is the standout. He was named to Perfect Game’s Summer Collegiate All-American team after dominating the West Coast League. Last season for Gonzaga, Hellinger struggled with a 5.36 ERA out of the bullpen, but he appeared to make tremendous strides in the offseason that will make him challenging for any team that falls behind Gonzaga.

Duke Blue Devils

Where: Surprise, Arizona

When: February 18

2016: 33-24 (14-15 ACC), RPI: 29, NCAA Tournament regional qualifier

Duke comes into the 2017 season following a 2016 late-season push that found them qualifying for the NCAA Tournament, where they were promptly dismissed after being thrashed by UNC-Wilmington and then losing to South Carolina. This season, though, the Blue Devils don’t appear to many to be any kind of a threat as they were picked to finish 5th in the Coastal Division of the ACC by the coaches.

The Hoosiers will see Duke on the backend of the Blue Devils’ Saturday doubleheader that starts with a contest against Gonzaga.

Oregon State Beavers

Where: Surprise, Arizona

When: February 20

2016: 35-19, RPI: 46 (16-14 Pac-12)

In 2016, Oregon State finished 4th in the usually stout Pac-12, in a year where the conference was competitive, top-to-bottom (the conference champion finished 19-11 in Pac-12 play, while the last place team finished 11-19). But that wasn’t good enough for an NCAA Tournament berth, marking the first time since 2004 that the Beavers had missed the dance.

2017 looks to be far different, however, as Oregon State finds themselves ranked 7th in the first USA Today Coaches Top 25 poll. All other major college baseball publications have the Beavers ranked in the Top-10 as well. They are led by pitcher Bryce Fehmel and infileder KJ Harrison, named to Collegiate Baseball’s 2nd nad 3rd preseason All-American teams, respectively. Harrison was also named to Perfect Game’s 3rd team. That publication named Nick Madrigal, the Pac-12’s 2016 Freshman of the Year, to its 1st team.

When the clubs get together in Surprise, it’ll be their first matchup since Oregon State ended Indiana’s best season ever at the 2013 College World Series when the Beavers shut down the Hoosiers’ daunted offense in a 1-0 victory in Omaha.

Florida Atlantic Owls

Where: Boca Raton, Florida

When: February 24-26

2016: 39-19 (21-8 C-USA), RPI: 34, C-USA Regular Season Champions, NCAA Tournament qualifier

After the Hoosiers leave Arizona, they’ll face another tough test when they head to Boca Raton to face Florida Atlantic for their first true road series. The Owls were one of the best non-power teams in the country in 2016, finishing 20 games above .500 and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament, where they were eliminated from the Coral Gables regional after two losses to Long Beach State.

This season, the coaches in Conference USA have predicted the Owls to finish second in that conference, which last season qualified three teams for the NCAA Tournament.

It will be critical for the Hoosiers to get a lead on the Owls and maintain that lead late in ballgames as Florida Atlantic is led by relief pitcher Cameron Ragsdale. Last season, the senior righty had 15 saves with a 1.61 ERA. He was named to Collegiate Baseball’s 3rd preseason All-American team for 2017.

Cincinnati Bearcats

Where: Cincinnati, Ohio and Bloomington, Indiana

When: March 1 and March 22

2016: 26-30-1 (13-10-1 AAC), RPI: 120

Cincinnati is coming off a rough 2016 campaign, which saw them struggle away from Cincinnati, Ohio, as they went 8-23-1 away from home, including 0-8 at neutral sites. One of those road wins, however, came in Bloomington when they shut out the Hoosiers for a 5-0 victory as Indiana was in the midst of its own struggles. The Hoosiers were able to take the rematch in Cincinnati a couple weeks later.

There’s really not much to discuss here. The Bearcats are a below average ball club that the Hoosiers will catch twice in mid-week battles. Indiana’s offense should have wild success against Cincinnati, and if the Hoosiers find a good mid-week starter, these should be two wins.

Samford Bulldogs

Where: Birmingham, Alabama

When: March 3-5

2016: 35-26 (13-11 Southern), RPI: 127

Samford will present a little bit of a break for the Hoosiers. On the first two weekends of play, Indiana will face teams that were all in the RPI Top-50 at the end of 2016, the worst of those being Oregon State, who most seem to think is a national championship contender in 2017. Samford, though, is average at best. But Indiana will need a weekend, somewhere along the way, to figure themselves out. This weekend may be that.

If Indiana gets off to a great start, this is an opportunity for Chris Lemonis to get some different guys some playing time. If the Hoosiers start slow, this is a weekend to get themselves some confidence and some steam heading toward Big Ten play.

Evansville Purple Aces

Where: Evansville, Indiana and Bloomington, Indiana

When: March 7 and March 28

2016: 29-27 (9-12 Missouri Valley), RPI: 136

Indiana-Evansville has become a neat little "rivalry" the last few seasons. A couple years ago, Evansville stole a game from the Hoosiers in Bloomington while Indiana was riding the struggle bus during the middle part of the season, and the Purple Aces nabbed the top spot on the SportsCenter Top 10 with an incredible leaping catch. Last season, the Hoosiers stormed back from a 5-1 deficit to win 7-6 in extra inning as several freshmen had their breakout moments.

What does that mean for 2017? Nothing. But it’s fun to relive. In reality, Indiana is a far superior program and, like the Cincinnati games, the Hoosiers should lock up two wins here, so long as they find a solid mid-week starter.

One player to watch, though, is Aces’ second baseman Trey Hair, who hit .340 lsat season with 10 home runs and was named to Collegiate Baseball’s 3rd preseason All-American team.

Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders

Where: Bloomington, Indiana

When: March 10-12

2016: 20-35 (5-24 C-USA), RPI: 165

The Blue Raiders may have been the worst team Indiana played last season, except for Butler. After Middle Tennessee State took the first game of season from the Hoosiers, Indiana had to play extra innings in games two and three to leave with any pride or hope. We should have known immediately that it was a sign of terrible things to come.

This season, there’s no reason to expect Middle Tennessee State to be any better. Given that the Hoosiers will be 12 games into the season and will be at home for the first time, anything but a sweep of the Blue Raiders will extremely disappointing.

Hawaii Rainbow Warriors

Where: Honolulu, Hawaii

When: March 15-18

2016: 23-30 (12-11 Big West), RPI: 173

Well, this weekend won’t help the RPI, but can you blame the program for heading to Hawaii for Spring Break?

Hawaii is not very good, but who knows, they might take two or three of these games depending on Indiana’s flight schedule and the players’ extracurricular activities on the island.

As a fan, not a lot to like about this weekend. Three or four wins are the only thing that will make you feel okay about it, but even that won’t help the cause as Indiana tries to get back to the NCAA Tournament. But two or three losses could be more than a bump in the road as far as the RPI is concerned. Plus, with the Big Ten season starting the next weekend, you have to hope the body clocks get back on real world time pretty quickly.

Indiana State Sycamores

Where: Bloomington, Indiana and Terre Haute, Indiana

When: March 29 and April 11

2016: 35-21 (13-8 Missouri Valley), RPI: 69

This matchup, like another mentioned below, probably should be a weekend series. Indiana State is nearly 100 RPI spots better than Middle Tennessee State (at least at the end of 2016). Knowing that mid-week games mean far less in the grand scheme of things, two mid-week contests with the Blue Raiders and a weekend battle with Indiana State (and perhaps a four-game set if they could work out a double-header with travel time not being an issue) would be far better for Indiana. It would benefit the Hoosiers’ RPI, assuming they could win the series, and would better prepare them for what might lie ahead in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments.

As usual, there aren’t any standouts in Terre Haute. But the Sycamores look to be formidable again and they will pose tough mid-week tests for Indiana.

Ball State Cardinals

Where: Bloomington, Indiana and Indianapolis, Indiana (Victory Field)

When: April 4 and April 25

2016: 32-26 (15-9 MAC), RPI: 176

Ball State stinks. These are two more games that won’t help if Indiana wins, but could hurt if they lose. The only thing to look forward to with these matchups is the contest at Victory Field, which will allow Indiana fans in Indianapolis an opportunity to catch the club without risking their sanity by getting on State Road 37.

Butler Bulldogs

Where: Bloomington, Indiana

When: April 19

2016: 14-40 (4-14 Big East), RPI: 276

This game is just a break from the Big Ten schedule. I mean, this is my assumption, but there is no other logical explanation. Butler is by far the worst team on the schedule each year that the two teams play. Last year, when the Hoosiers got off to a slow start, they beat Butler just 2-1 in Florida. Later in the season, they beat the Bulldogs 27-1 in Bloomington.

If you’re a season ticket holder, give em away for April 19, if you can, and take the family out to a movie or something that won’t be a complete waste of time.

Xavier Musketeers

Where: Bloomington, Indiana

When: May 5-7

2016: 32-30 (14-4 Big East), RPI: 72, Big East Tournament Champions, NCAA Tournament automatic qualifier

So, I’m not sure this is the kind of top-billing non-conference series that fans should be excited about, but that’s what it is in 2017. Overall, Indiana’s non-conference schedule is far better in 2017 than it was in 2016. That said, there are almost no appealing matchups at home, exhibit A being Xavier as the best non-Big Ten team the Hoosiers will see at Bart Kaufman Field.

Xavier got stupid hot at the end of the year and won a bad conference’s tournament and got an automatic bid. Then, the weirdest thing of the entire college baseball season happened when the Musketeers beat Vanderbilt 15-1 in the Nashville Regional. Xavier was eventually bounced after two losses to UC Santa Barbara, however.

As for 2017, Joe Gellenbeck was named the Big East’s preseason player of the year. Along with Gellenbeck, six other Musketeers were named to the Big East’s preseason teams. Xavier is probably the best team in the Big East. But they still probably aren’t good enough to be the marquee non-conference series that gives you a chance to entertain the fans and make some noise for the selection committee.

Kentucky Wildcats

Where: Lexington, Kentucky

When: May 9

2016: 32-25 (15-15 SEC), RPI: 70

This is another matchup that you would have to love to see as a series, but it is not necessary. Kentucky is an okay program and they are a tough midweek challenge. But that’s about it.

There are two Wildcats who have been named Top 100 draft eligible prospects, but only one that you’ll see during a midweek contest. Evan White, Kentucky’s first baseman, is number 33 on Baseball America’s list. White was also named to Collegiate Baseball‘s 2nd preseason All-American team.

Louisville Cardinals

Where: Bloomington, Indiana

When: May 16

2016: 50-14 (22-8 ACC), RPI: 2, NCAA Regional Champions

This is the one that makes you scratch your head. Either Lemonis and co. don’t want this to be a series or they haven’t been able to get it done. Regardless, you have to wonder why.

The best team on Indiana’s schedule is Louisville, who checks-in at number 8 in the USA Today Coaches Poll to start the season. The Cards are picked second in the ACC, as well. And by the time these teams throw down, we’ll know everything we need to know about both of them, except how Indiana, in its prime, matches up with a national power. It’s hard to imagine a more important midweek game for any other Big Ten team, given the timing of this one.

If the Hoosiers are on the bubble, this could be a win that might push them over the hump. At the very least, playing Louisville will help the RPI. A win also might give the Hoosiers incredible confidence at home, where they will host the Big Ten Tournament just two weeks later.

Louisville returns three All-Americans from 2016, including Brendan McKay and Devin Hairston, position players that the Hoosiers will face in this midweek contest.