On Friday NCAA Tournament play will open around the country as teams begin down the road to Omaha and the College World Series. Hoosier fans will have their eyes on Derby City, as earlier this week it was announced that IU will be playing in the Louisville Regional.
Overall the group that will be vying for a super regional berth in Louisville appears to be a tricky one to predict as each of the top three teams had a strong regular season in some tough conferences. Before the postseason officially begins here’s a snapshot of where each team stands, what they’ve accomplished and what their strengths and weaknesses seem to be.
No. 11 Louisville Cardinals (43-15, 21-9 ACC)
Strength of Schedule: 33
W-L vs RPI Top 50: 17-12
The Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season champion, Louisville crashed out of the ACC Tournament with back-to-back losses to Boston College and Clemson respectively. That clearly didn’t put much of a damper on the Cardinals’ resume as they’re still hosting this weekend. Going 21-9 in the third-best conference in Warren Nolan’s conference RPI rankings is no small task. In reaching that record the Cardinals chalked up wins against No. 6 Georgia Tech, No. 17 Miami and No. 20 NC State. Add in non-conference wins against SEC competition like No. 14 Ole Miss and Kentucky as well as against Indiana and you can see that Louisville has been tested and performed well.
The Louisville offense has been potent this season, averaging 7.6 runs per game. The left side of the infield has been huge for the Cards in that regard. Alex Binelas has been UL’s main source of power in 2019. The freshman third baseman leads the team in homers with 13 and has also driven in 52 runs and hit .315. Junior shortstop Tyler Fitzgerald has been tremendous as well. The Illinois native leads the team in batting average, carrying a .327 mark into the postseason, as well as in RBIs with 60. He’s also stolen 15 bases and hit seven homers. Over on the other side of the infield first baseman Logan Wyatt is one of the best hitters in the country, but he hasn’t put up gaudy numbers to quite match his ability because a lot of teams don’t want to pitch to him. He leads Louisville in walks and it isn’t even close. He’s gotten a free pass 64 times this season and his closest competition is Jake Snider who has drawn 30 walks.
The Louisville pitching staff has been good as well. As a group the Cardinal pitchers have posted a 3.70 earned run average as well as a .218 batting average against. They also struck out 606 batters in 525 innings, a 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings average.
Reid Detmers, Louisville’s ace, has truly led from the front this year. The sophomore has had a breakout season, pitching his way to a 2.80 ERA and a .88 WHIP as well as an 11-3 record. He’s struck out 145 batters in just over 93 innings and is allowing opposing batters to hit just .180 against him. He’s done all of this without an explosive fastball, he sits right around 91 mph. Instead, the left-hander relies on the movement of his fastball as well as his two-seamer and a sharp curveball and it’s worked very well for him this season, helping him move up 2020 MLB Draft boards as he’s now considered by some to be one of the top arms in the class.
If there’s a weakness for Dan McConnell’s squad it might be the depth of its starting rotation. Behind Detmers it’s been a bit shaky. Nick Bennett has started the second-most games of any Cardinal—trailing just Detmers—and he’s pitched to a 4.64 ERA in 66 innings. His 1.45 WHIP is the lowest of any Cardinal that has pitched at least 10 innings in 2019. Behind Detmers and Bennett UL has tried a handful of other guys. Bryan Hoeing, Bobby Miller and Luke Smith each have at least five starts on the season. At times those guys—Bennett, Hoeing, Miller and Smith—have pitched well so there may not be much to worry about, but there’s the possibility that the Bennett who gave up six runs in under three innings against Florida State just weeks ago or the Miller who gave up eight runs to Virginia earlier this month could show up.
Another issue that Louisville could have is a bit of offensive inconsistency, not dissimilar to IU. The Cardinals have struggled to put up runs at times throughout the season despite the talent in their lineup and their typical production level.
Indiana Hoosiers (36-21, 17-7 B1G)
Strength of Schedule: 56
W-L vs RPI Top 50: 5-8
It might not be unfair to call the Hoosiers a lite version of Louisville. The Hoosiers were regular season champions in the Big Ten, they were unceremoniously dumped out of their conference tournament, they have their conference’s pitcher of the year in one Andrew Saalfrank, the list goes on.
One of those similarities is that IU has one of the strongest offenses in the nation. The Hoosiers finished second in the nation with 90 home runs during the regular season, trailing just former skipper Tracy Smith’s Arizona State squad. They used that power surge to average 6.9 runs per game (nice). Utilityman Matt Lloyd should continue to be a key cog in the lineup. The slugger tied for the Big Ten lead with 16 longballs during the regular season and led the Hoosiers by driving in 54 runs. He also led all qualifying Hoosiers with a .282 batting average. Matt Gorski, IU’s five-tool centerfielder, should also be an impact player. He has 12 homers of his own this season and leads IU with 18 stolen bases. He also plays top-notch defense in center field and occasionally makes plays that are best described as jaw-dropping.
On the flip side, the Hoosiers have one of the best rotations around. Senior stalwart Pauly Milto, junior Tanner Gordon and the aforementioned Saalfrank have combined for a 3.23 ERA and 283 strikeouts in over 250 innings. The trio of starters has been huge for IU and regularly works deep into games, allowing the bullpen to rest and limiting what might not be a weakness, but is certainly an X-factor—bullpen depth.
Lloyd serves as the closer for the Hoosiers as well as being a big bat in the middle of the lineup. He struggled to get to the bullpen to warm up at times during the season, stopping him from pitching, because he was playing first base. That doesn’t seem like it’ll be a problem moving forward as he has returned to the designated hitter spot and should be more readily available to pitch. Other than Lloyd there aren’t many arms in the IU bullpen that are proven so guys like Connor Manous, Tommy Sommer and Gabe Bierman among others could be the deciding factor in how far the Hoosiers go in this tournament.
Another concern will be whether or not the Hoosier offense can perform against elite arms. This season IU struggles against Penn State’s Dante Biasi and Minnesota’s Max Meyer as well as Andy Fisher and Ty Weber of Illinois. The profile that the Hoosiers probably want to avoid the most is the lefty that strikes out batters one after another, especially if they use a plus breaking ball to do so. Who fits this profile? Brent Headrick and Reid Detmers—quite possibly the first two pitchers that the Hoosiers will see this weekend.
Illinois State Redbirds (34-24, 14-7 MVC)
Strength of Schedule: 19
W-L vs RPI Top 50: 5-14
Illinois State isn’t a typical mid-major. They could have been a two-seed in this tournament after sharing the Missouri Valley Conference’s regular-season title with Dallas Baptist and scoring wins over some good teams like No. 2 Vanderbilt, Iowa and Illinois during their nonconference schedule.
The Redbird lineup isn’t quite as productive as IU’s but it’s pretty close. ISU has averaged 6.4 runs per game this season, but it wasn’t necessarily by putting the ball out of the park. The Redbirds have hit 50 homers, which isn’t bad, but they’ve also hit 119 doubles and that production has come from throughout the lineup rather than from a few key players. They currently have five players hitting over .300 on the season with junior Joe Aeilts leading the way by hitting .350. It might not be a terribly flashy offense, but it appears to be one that’s consistent which could be a difference maker against both Indiana and Louisville.
When looking at the Redbird pitching staff it’s hard to look past its ace—Brent Headrick. The 6’6 southpaw has been great in 2019, posting a 9-3 record, a 3.50 ERA and a .214 batting average against while striking out over 10 batters per nine innings. From the looks of it, he’s the exact kind of pitcher that gives the Hoosiers fits and he’ll get the opportunity to do just that since he’ll be starting for Illinois State on Friday.
After Headrick, the rest of the rotation looks a bit dicey. Every other pitcher that has started multiple games for the Redbirds this season has an ERA above 4.40. Only one of those pitchers, Colton Johnson, has a record over .500 by more than one game. Illinois State will need production out of their second, third and fourth starters if it wants to get deep into this regional.
Illinois-Chicago Flames (29-21, 18-11 Horizon)
Strength of Schedule: 271
W-L vs RPI Top 50: 2-4
Illinois-Chicago is in this tournament because of a conference tournament championship as many four-seeds are. A pair of wins over Milwaukee as well as an 11-6 win over a good Wright State team that beat IU in Bloomington earned the Flames a bid and landed them in Louisville this weekend. UIC also holds good wins over the likes of No. 17 Texas A&M and Illinois State as well, showing that the Flames can hang with the big dogs.
A significant chunk of their offense has come from two guys this season—senior Scott Ota and freshman Ryan Hampe. The former has hit .358 this season with 19 home runs, 62 RBIs, and a 1.200 OPS—video game numbers. The latter is no slouch either. Hampe is hitting .369 with a team-leading 14 doubles as well as five homers and 47 RBIs. If you want to throw a wrench into UIC’s offense, start by slowing down these two if possible.
The starting rotation has been led by junior Jacob Key, who has a 3.67 ERA and a 7-7 record through 15 starts. He’s not exactly a strikeout specialist, he has just 87 in 100 innings, but he still leads the Flames in the stat. On the other end of the staff, the back end of the bullpen has been nails this season. Senior Alex Padilla and freshman Mark McCabe each have ERAs under 1.00 as well as eight saves between them. They’ve also limited batters to .115 and .183 batting averages against respectively.
The downfall of the Flames in this regional could easily be depth. Where teams like Louisville and Indiana have impact players throughout the lineup Illinois-Chicago doesn’t quite as much. Starting pitching could be a concern as well. Key is the only regular starter with an ERA below 4.00 and a WHIP below 1.40.