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Indiana baseball preview part II: The Big Ten

The Big Ten may not be a true power conference yet, but the top of the league is good. Really good.

Testudo Times

Ed. note: As we lead up to Indiana’s first pitch against Gonzaga in just 14 days, Crimson Quarry is in the midst of unveiling 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 season preview, we took a look at the non-conference schedule, which gives the Hoosiers a great opportunity to play some quality opponents and also to rack up some wins before and during the Big Ten campaign. Now, in Part II, we dive into Indiana’s Big Ten schedule.

Northwestern Wildcats

Where: Evanston, Illinois

When: March 24-26

2016: 15-39 (7-17 B1G), RPI: 255

On opening weekend of Big Ten play, Indiana has a big fat chance to start 3-0 and put some pressure on the clubs expected to hang around the top of the conference standings. In 2016, only one team in what we traditionally think of as the Power Five conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC) finished with a worse RPI than Northwestern. That was Purdue.

When the Hoosiers and Wildcats get together, Indiana will be nearly a month removed from its last contest against a 2016 NCAA qualifier and should be rolling with all kinds of momentum. Really, the only thing to fear with Northwestern, and the games leading up to it for that matter, is that the trip to Honolulu to play Hawaii just one week earlier will upset the body clocks and any momentum built over the previous few weeks. Still though, anything but a sweep will feel like a missed opportunity.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

Where: Bloomington, Indiana

When: March 31-April 2

2016: 37-22 (16-8 B1G), RPI: 53, NCAA Tournament regional qualifier

If Indiana can leave Evanston with a sweep, they’ll have a chance to announce to the rest of the Big Ten their candidacy for 2017 Big Ten Regular Seasons Champions. In just the second weekend of Big Ten play, they’ll welcome to Bart Kaufman Field one of three teams that D1Baseball predicts to finish ahead of the Hoosiers in the conference, Nebraska.

After storming through the Big Ten at 16-8 in 2016, and finishing the regular season winning 13 of their last 16, culminating with a sweep over the Hoosiers, Nebraska’s season was derailed in their own backyard. They went 0-2 in Omaha at the Big Ten Tournament and were eliminated by the Indiana team they’d just swept. They still got a bid to the NCAA Tournament, but went 0-2 there as well and were done.

The Huskers will be led by junior Jake Meyers, a utility player recently named to Perfect Game’s Preseason All-American Third Team. He hit .326 last season while sporting Nebraska’s best ERA at 1.42 in nine starts and over 40.0 IP. He also drove in 29 RBIs and stole 10 bases.

It will be vital for Indiana to limit the damage that Meyers does from the mound and the plate as the team that comes away with two or three games from this series will have positioned themselves for a run at the Big Ten title.

Purdue Boilermakers

Where: West Lafayette, Indiana

When: April 7-9

2016: 10-44 (2-22 B1G), RPI: 275


Anything but a sweep would be dreadful.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Where: Bloomington, Indiana

When: April 14-16

2016: 36-22 (16-7 B1G), RPI: 50, NCAA Tournament regional qualifier

This is the beginning of a murderer’s row portion of the Big Ten schedule for the Hoosiers. Minnesota, last season’s Big Ten surprise team, is coming off an season where they earned an NCAA berth and found themselves playing in the final of the College Station regional where they bowed out to Texas A&M.

Most expect a fall off from last season’s success (D1Baseball has the Gophers predicted to finish 6th in the Big Ten), but the 3-time national champions could still be a big factor in the regular season title race as a mid-level conference team capable of beating anyone. For Indiana, with two monster series looming, it’s hard to imagine a Big Ten regular season championship without taking at least two from the Gophers.

Michigan Wolverines

Where: Ann Arbor, Michigan

When: April 21-23

2016: 36-21 (13-10 B1G), RPI: 39

In 2016, Michigan was, perhaps, the biggest snub of the NCAA Tournament. Surely hurt by their conference record and their conference membership, the Wolverines didn’t make the dance despite a Top-40 RPI.

The 2017 Wolverines will look a little different. Good news for the rest of the Big Ten: Carmen Benedetti, Mr. Everything, is gone. Benedetti was, since Kyle Schwarber’s departure, the Big Ten’s best player.

The bad news for the Big Ten: Michigan is still really good. D1Baseball predicts the Wolverines to finish 2nd in the conference. That’s mostly due to the Michigan infield. At every position but first base (including behind the dish) the Wolverines return starters who played in more than 50 games in 2016.

It will be crucial for the Hoosiers to get at least one win in Ann Arbor. But if they can get back to Bloomington with two, it’s hard to imagine that the next weekend wouldn’t be for the lead in the Big Ten.

Maryland Terrapins

Where: Bloomington, Indiana

When: April 28-30

2016: 30-27 (13-11 B1G), RPI: 60, NCAA Tournament regional qualifier

If you live in or near Bloomington and aren’t heading to Bart Kaufman every chance you get, circle this weekend. This is the weekend you want to make a special trip.

Predicted to win the Big Ten, Maryland is coming off a disappointing 2016 campaign, where they seemingly wasted the final season of Mike Shawaryn, widely believed to be the best pitcher in college baseball going into last season. Perhaps the highlight of the Terps season was a little run through the Big Ten Tournament, which included two wins over Indiana.

This season, the Terps are the only Big Ten team ranked in any poll, finding themselves Top-25 in D1Baseball, Baseball America, and Perfect Game’s polls. A big part of the rankings and predictions is junior shortstop Kevin Smith. Named to Baseball America’s first Preseason All-American team, Smith is no stranger to the accolades. He was named to the Freshmen All-American team after his first year and was an All-Star and All-League in the Cape Cod League this past summer.

D1Baseball called him the Breakout Summer Prospect and Perfect Game called him the best defensive infielder in the Cape Cod League. Both publications have also named him Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year.

If Indiana doesn’t win this series, there’s no catching Maryland. Only two or three other teams have the ability to hang with the Terps over an entire weekend and won’t do enough damage to Maryland’s conference record to allow the Hoosiers to make up the ground.

If the Hoosiers do take the series, though, they’ll be primed to win the Big Ten, assuming that the earlier portions of Big Ten play go to plan.

Penn State Nittany Lions

Where: Bloomington, Indiana

When: May 12-14

2016: 28-27 (12-12 B1G), RPI: 123

After the Maryland series, Indiana gets a weekend off from Big Ten play. Then they’ll welcome Penn State to Bloomington. The Nittany Lions aren’t as bad as Northwestern or Purdue, but they’ll offer Indiana either an easy weekend toward a Big Ten title or a chance to pick up some wins and reposition themselves in the standings.

Ohio State Buckeyes

Where: Columbus, Ohio

When: May 18-20

2016: 44-20-1 (15-9 B1G), RPI: 33, Big Ten Tournament champions, NCAA Tournament regional qualifier

The Hoosiers finish their season in Columbus against an Ohio State team likely to face a drop off from last season’s success.

After losing to Iowa in the second game of the Big Ten Tournament, the Buckeyes stormed through the loser’s bracket and won the whole thing, earning the conference’s automatic bid. They were bounced from the Louisville regional after losses to the Cardinals and Wright State.

But in 2017, Ohio State is predicted to finish just 7th in the Big Ten. Still, if the weekend is as important to the Hoosiers as we all hope it will be, the Buckeyes won’t be a pushover and will give Indiana a fight.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the Hoosiers themselves before wrapping up our season preview with predictions.